Did the pope turn a blind eye to abuse? He needs to tell us
Amid talk of resignation, Francis’s reform agenda will be gauged on whether he’s prepared to answer the charges
On the plane back from Ireland, Pope Francis was his usual loquacious self. He answered questions on abortion, sexuality and the child abuse crisis in the church.
But then someone asked him about a letter that accuses Francis himself of covering something up, he said: “I will not say a single word.”
His silence is sobering.
A serious allegation against Francis has been made that cannot be ignored. If it is proved accurate, the most alarming analysis says it could lead either to a papal resignation or to a profound loss of moral authority, which for a pope is a kind of living death.It brings me no pleasure to write this. On the contrary, I am one of the few traditional-minded Catholics who have consistently defended a pontiff idolised by the media as a supposed liberal. But the facts are the facts, and here they are.
At the heart of the current crisis in the US Catholic church is Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal alleged to have harassed and molested young men (he has resigned but has not been arrested). Last weekend, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to Washington, published a letter in which he claimed that senior churchmen knew about McCarrick and that, sometime between 2009 and 2010, Pope Benedict XVI told McCarrick to cease his official duties and retreat to a life of “prayer and penance”.
Benedict, who retired in 2013, is reported to have confirmed that he did this, although Francis’s defenders point out that McCarrick was still seen in public performing duties.What’s indisputable, however, is that after Francis was elected pope, McCarrick’s star reascended.
In 2014, the National Catholic Reporter described McCarrick as having been “put out to pasture” by Benedict but as enjoying a “renaissance” as a papal adviser. Francis once joked of him: “"The bad ones, they never die!”
McCarrick’s US friends enjoyed promotions. Viganò says the pope knew McCarrick was corrupt but “covered for him to the bitter end” – that it was only when McCarrick was exposed a few weeks ago that Francis decided to drop his adviser and order another spell of “prayer and penance”.
Francis did it, says Viganò, “to save his image in the media”.Viganò’s letter smacks of personal hatred of Francis. But if the text is inaccurate, why wouldn’t the pope correct it, just as he has spoken so openly about so many other things? And how does he explain the concurrence between Viganò’s claims, Benedict’s account and what we know of McCarrick’s career?
The problem is that what Viganò says also tallies with what we know of Francis’s leadership style. To repeat: I am not a natural critic. Francis initially did wonders for the reputation of the church, and I’ve found myself challenged by his moral clarity: he’s helped change my mind on the environment and the death penalty. But Francis has displayed a poor choice in people he trusts, observing a rule that was described to me by a Vatican resident as: “If you’re nice to Francis, Francis is nice to you.”
For example, he was surprisingly militant in his defence of a Chilean bishop who was accused by the victims of child abuse of a cover-up; Francis was eventually shamed into an apology. And of the nine cardinals appointed to his chief advisory team, three are accused to varying degrees of failing to handle the abuse crisis properly, while another is said to have mismanaged finances.Meanwhile, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Germany, who is very close to the pope, has gone undisciplined for all sorts of liberal theological infractions, including crediting Catholic social teachings to Karl Marx (no relation).
Why is it, ask traditional-minded Catholics, that Francis is so doggedly loyal to some yet has reprimanded and demoted those he disagrees with?
Perhaps the simple answer is that he’s human. Popes are. That’s been forgotten in the rush to project onto them our own ambitions, a lot of which are framed by secular politics. When Francis walked out onto the balcony of St Peter’s in 2013 in a simple white cassock, it was akin to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader – the virtuous allotment gardener.
People who were desperate for change thought Corbyn was it, and they overlooked his past, a matter of public record, and his limitations.
In cults of personality, reality vanishes. Francis is not the Church’s Gorbachev. He can’t rewrite Catholic teaching on sexuality even if he wanted to – and, if you paid attention, you’d realise he doesn’t. In his post-Ireland press conference he said that if you’re worried that your child is gay, you could always send them to a psychiatrist.
An experienced person would also know that the Vatican doesn’t have the manpower, the authority or even the legal framework needed to handle the abuse scandal.
Many readers will be wondering why, if he was guilty of the allegations against him, McCarrick was told to do “prayer and penance” rather than just be marched straight to the nearest police station. Protection of the church’s reputation might be to blame – and a significant test of Francis’s reform agenda will be whether or not he’s prepared to answer Viganò’s charges, no matter how humiliating it is for the Vatican.
I hope Francis will do that. I hope Viganò is proved wrong. If not, the word “resignation” will be put about – thanks to Benedict XVI, there is now precedent.If Francis is tarnished and does not quit, it will be what a priest describes to me as “a virtual resignation”. A pope will be in office but without authority. And this, surely, will shake my own faith? No. Catholics do not worship the pope blindly: he doesn’t author our teachings, he only interprets them, and he is only “infallible” when he speaks what we define as the truth, which is what we have believed “everywhere, always and by all”.
It’s this truth that drew me to convert to Catholicism and this truth has been betrayed by those who committed abuse or covered it up. A betrayal of a principle doesn’t negate it, no more than Judas’s betrayal of Jesus tarnished Jesus’s teachings.
For most Catholics like me, the faith is, put crudely, “births, weddings and funerals” – a lived experience, and not the internal politics of the Vatican. That said, St Paul taught that if one part of the body of believers is in pain, the entire body hurts. Francis has questions to answer. For the love of God, he must do so.
– © The Daily Telegraph