Directly addressing the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church this week, Pope Francis has done what many thought impossible: he has made matters worse.
The manner in which the Pope approaches the issue is genuinely astonishing. He gives the impression that he is much more interested in protecting the church organisation and those within the hierarchy than he is with the pastoral task of healing the hurts of the victims and the faithful of his church.
In a homily whilst celebrating mass at the Vatican on Tuesday, Francis said:
‘In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins so they are visible in order to scandalise the people. The Great Accuser, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse. A bishop’s strength against the Great Accuser is prayer, Jesus’s and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.’
To imply that the real victims of the abuse scandal are the bishops beggars belief. To say that those who expose priests and bishops within the ecclesiastical structure who have committed appalling crimes against children, and the continuing effort to cover it up, are doing the work of Satan is beyond comprehension.
The crimes are not ‘uncovered sins’ that should have been left at rest. There is incontrovertible evidence that the Vatican, and particularly bishops and clerics in the United States, Ireland, Chile and Australia, silenced victims of sexual abuse for decades. It is clear they also protected and even hid the abusers, passing them on to other parishes to continue their predatory activity.
Pope Francis also tried to deflect the blame for the accusations by focusing on the church ‘elites’, in other words those who disagree with his modernising gay-friendly approach. He said: ‘The “elites” criticise bishops, while the people have an attitude of love towards the bishop. This is almost a special unction that confirms the bishop in his vocation.’
So, faced with the most serious pastoral crisis imaginable, the response of the Pope and his supporters is to say: ‘It’s all about us’.
Most certainly there are guilty men still holding positions of power in the hierarchy of the church. If it were not so, the sins of men such as the now-deposed American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who sexually abused minors and adult seminarians over decades, would not have gone unnoticed or hidden for decades.
Last month Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former papal nuncio to the United States, levelled damning accusations. According to Vigano not just the present Pope, but the last three pontiffs either ignored, abetted, or just gave a slap on the wrist to Cardinal McCarrick, whose sins of predatory homosexual activity have been amply proven and brought to their notice.
Facing the most serious of the McCarrick-related accusations, that he restored a depraved cardinal to the role of Vatican adviser, insiders rushed to the Pope’s defence. The line pushed by Francis’s supporters in the Vatican is that more traditionalist Catholics are raising this issue simply as a means to get at the Pope. It is suggested that this is because of his modernising agenda, or because of his show of simplicity and humility.
Some have suggested that McCarrick’s sexual involvements with male seminarians were consensual, therefore not too bad. Given that the Roman Catholic church still holds the biblical position that homosexual acts are sinful, it is not much of a defence to claim that both cardinal and students agreed to commit the sin.
This defence misses the vital point in the abuse scandal. At the heart of it lies the fact of power and privilege, and the abuse of trust. Besides, we have to ask how much ‘consent’ the little boys and girls gave to the predatory priests.
In his Tuesday homily the Pope continued to dig himself into a deeper hole: ‘With people lacking good will, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family – silence, prayer’ is the path to take.
Thus, for those who have been direct victims of abuse, and for faithful Catholics who have been horrified by the abuse and cover up, Francis’s solution to their deep hurt is ‘Keep quiet and pray’. Catholics, and non-Catholics, should pray but we certainly will not keep silent. If there is a place in the life of the Christian for righteous anger, this is it.
The direct victims of predatory priests and the nuns who supported them in their evil have a right to be angry with bishops who care more for the church hierarchy than they do for the people of the church.
Faithful Catholics in the pews are also victims. They have seen their church brought into the gutter by a self-serving establishment. They have a right to be angry at their betrayal by those they trusted. Having been told that the Roman Catholic church is the true church, where, if anywhere, can they go now? Leaving the church, they may well leave Christ.
The rest of the Christian church should be angry at vile behaviour which enables an unbelieving world to point a finger at us all.
There is a place for righteous anger.