Tuesday 21 May 2019

Pápa don't preach: A Pope under pressure

Already unpopular among conservative Catholics for his reforming zeal, Pope Francis arrives in Ireland under heavy pressure to address the Vatican's many failings on handling clerical sexual abuse. Can this genial Jesuit deliver on expectations

A broad church: Pope Francis looks on after laying a floral wreath at the National Martyrs' of Bangladesh in Savar, 30km from Dhaka, last November.
A broad church: Pope Francis looks on after laying a floral wreath at the National Martyrs' of Bangladesh in Savar, 30km from Dhaka, last November.
Hot water: Pope Francis arrives on the popemobile at the site at Lobitos Beach, to celebrate an open-air mass caused outrage on the trip when he suggested that some of the country's victims of clerical sex abuse were lying.
Christmas blessin: Pope Francis waves as he delivers a "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and world) message from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on December 25, 2014.
Pope Francis meets President Donald Trump (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was a honeymoon period that lasted from the start of his papacy in 2013 until January of this year. Pope Francis had captivated Catholics and the non-religious alike with his compassion for the poor and concerns for the environment and when he was named Time magazine's Person of the Year, few quibbled.

Even the most trenchant Vatican critic would have come to the conclusion that this seemingly always-smiling pope - the first from South America, the first Jesuit, the first in almost 100 years to live in regular lodgings rather than the grand Vatican papal apartment - was cut from very different cloth to those who had gone before.

But the high regard with which many held Francis started to crumble 17 days into 2018. On an official visit to Chile, he caused outrage when he suggested that some of the country's victims of clerical sexual abuse were lying. He said the cover-up allegations against controversial bishop Juan Barros were "all calumny" despite the Vatican having removed the abusive priest at the centre of the scandal in 2011.

Chilean protestors pointed out that the pontiff was no different to his predecessors and noted that the cleric, Fr Karadima, had not been punished but merely sentenced by Rome to a "lifetime of penance and prayer".

Hot water: Pope Francis arrives on the popemobile at the site at Lobitos Beach, to celebrate an open-air mass caused outrage on the trip when he suggested that some of the country's victims of clerical sex abuse were lying.
Hot water: Pope Francis arrives on the popemobile at the site at Lobitos Beach, to celebrate an open-air mass caused outrage on the trip when he suggested that some of the country's victims of clerical sex abuse were lying.

Pope Francis was quick to apologise for his poor judgement, but the damage had already been done.

Here was a man who had promised "decisive action" when he was elected to the top job and now he was not just failing to live up to his word, but was also appearing to diminish the experience of people who had suffered abuse at the hands of his priests and bishops. His predecessor, Benedict, who had little appeal outside the devout Catholic world, had never appeared to point the finger at victims.

Decades of abuse

Since that ill-fated trip to Chile, Francis has been confronted with major child abuse scandals in several parts of the world, including Australia and the UK. And last week, the pontiff has had to contend with the fallout from revelations that more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania were sexually assaulted by 300 priests there over several decades.

The timing could hardly have been worse, coming a matter of days before the triennial World Meeting of Families, which is being held in Dublin this week, and which Francis visits today as part of a whistle-stop 36-hour Irish tour.

A year ago, when it was first mooted that Francis might visit Ireland, many expected him to receive a warm welcome.

Christmas blessin: Pope Francis waves as he delivers a
Christmas blessin: Pope Francis waves as he delivers a "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and world) message from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on December 25, 2014.

It would be nothing like that afforded to Pope John Paul II when he transfixed the country in 1979 - Ireland has changed in almost every way, after all - but this was a pope that seemed to captivate virtually everyone.

The events of this year have ensured that there will be a far more complex set of emotions when he sets foot on Irish soil.

The Irish-born Vatican-based journalist Gerard O'Connell has travelled with Francis on the official papal flight to many parts of the world and believes he has thought "long and hard" about how clerical sexual abuse has scarred Ireland. "I think he feels very saddened by all that has happened since John Paul II's visit, not least the abuse question, the terrible way it's been handled," he says. "I think this disturbs him deeply and I'm sure we're going to see him speak - and maybe more than one time - on the abuse question when he comes to Ireland.

"He is very aware of Ireland, not least because you have about 600,000 people of Irish extraction living in Argentina - the largest Irish population in any non-English speaking country. And he knew Irish people from his time as Provincial of the Jesuits in Buenos Aires. He knows very well that in Ireland, there's a wounded church and a wounded people and people close to him have told me that he is very conscious of this and has been thinking a long time of what he will say."

Earlier this week, on the back of the shocking Pennsylvania revelations, Francis issued a 'Letter to the People of God' acknowledging the abuse that had happened. His words were heartfelt, but there was a mixed reaction - with some suggesting it didn't go nearly far enough in admitting the Vatican's culpability.

"What he's saying is that this isn't an Anglo-Saxon problem, it's a global problem," O'Connell says, "and we're ashamed of it and we must do what we can to get rid of it and to prevent it happening again. He said, 'We didn't care about the little ones'.

"I've seen that in his years as Pope, he's come to a greater awareness and a greater understanding of abuse - and a greater determination to deal with this problem cost what it may."

David Quinn, director of the conservative Catholic think-tank, the Iona Institute, believes Francis must publicly address the clerical sex abuse and cover-up if his visit here is to be seen as successful. "He needs to say something like, 'We will be producing a new policy on this shortly' and he has to say it in a heartfelt, convincing manner.

"They [the Vatican] have patently failed to come to terms with the issue and to take a hardline. More than 20 years ago, I said every single bishop in Ireland who was appointed before 1996 should have to resign. That was the year when we brought in our first child protection act, that had reference to the church."

Quinn believes Francis has been slow to appreciate the extent of the abuse. "There's an attitude in the wider church that this problem is mainly an Irish-Anglophone one. They don't hear about it so much in South America and Italy and so on and even though it exists in those countries, it's not anything like the scale in Ireland and the Anglophone countries.

"He gave an interview some years ago in which there was dialogue between himself and the chief rabbi of Argentina and he is asked about this and he says there's no problem in Buenos Aires. That, to me, is ridiculous but it's what he genuinely might have believed."

Gerard O'Connell believes Francis truly has the will to tackle the issue. "He realised he made a mistake in Chile and, unprecedented for popes, he said publicly, 'I've made a mistake - I got it wrong.' And when he came back from Chile, he knew the advice he had been given didn't match reality. So he sent the Vatican's top prosecutor, Archbishop Scicluna from Malta, in and he lit up a Pandora's box and then the Pope has dealt quite decisively with it. He invited the victims to come and stay in his place in the Vatican, he paid for their trip and he sat with them for hours."

'Remarkable' tenure

Austen Ivereigh, the former deputy editor of the UK's Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, and author of a biography on Pope Francis entitled The Great Reformer, believes his handling of the Chilean crisis is a reflection on what he believes has been a "remarkable" tenure.

"I defend his role on abuse because I think he has done a phenomenal amount and he's done what you ask of a pope which is to build on the reform of his predecessors - to spread safeguarding practices and protocols," he says. "One thing that gets missed about Marie Collins [the Irish victim of clerical abuse] leaving the Pontifical Commission is that that commission for minors which he set up has been steadily giving hundreds of courses to dioceses and Catholic institutions in order to bring about a culture of care and safeguarding. The church is taking a lead in this issue under Francis."

Collins and others have been strongly critical of Francis and his handling of abuse and say this week's letter is more about wooly thinking than concrete proposals. Ivereigh believes Francis's words are more critical than many appreciate. "He has identified the mentality and spiritual corruption which lies behind this crisis - and that's clericalism, turning the institution into an idol and the detachment of the church from the people. This is the heart of the issue which he's getting at."

Ivereigh believes the pope has had a significant impact on the church since 2013. "I think he's been remarkably successful in what he's set out to do which was to attempt a radical reform of the Vatican and to change the focus of the church in the Western world so it is less preoccupied with its own self-preservation and more focused on evangelisation and service.

"With those two objectives, you can say after five years that there's still a long way to go but the strength of the refocusing has been remarkable and he's caused people outside the church to look again at it and he's caused Catholics to rethink how they see the world. And of course many of them don't like it, which is a sign that it's working."

If Francis has had to contend in 2018 with criticism from many of those outside the church, he has been at the subject of downright hostility from conservative elements from the beginning of his pontificate.

"'Conservative' means many different things and there are many kinds of resistance to him," Ivereigh says. "There's an ideological resistance from people who worship the free market in the US, who see him as a kind of socialist. There's a traditional conservative element who despise him because he's all about implementing the Second Vatican Council and there's a certain kind of morally conservative cultural warrior who misunderstands Francis; they see him as undermining orthodox doctrine which he absolutely hasn't done."

Gerard O'Connell believes this pope has little time for the notion of papal infallibility. "This is a humble man. He doesn't put himself above anybody, even the person that's quite discarded by society - he is at that person's level. And right from the beginning in the first document he published in November 2013 - The Joy of the Gospel - he said very clearly you can't expect the pope to be able to answer everything. And he said that he would make mistakes but he said he is willing to take the risk and to get his boots muddied and he has no hesitation about it.

"This pope is a very free man," he adds, "he has inner freedom. He doesn't find himself tied by traditions and he speaks his mind. We see him on the press conferences - on how freely he speaks. Some people get upset by what he says. He keeps insisting, 'I too am a sinner'."

Greater acceptance

David Quinn believes Francis has enjoyed far greater acceptance than his immediate predecessors because he has largely steered clear of "issues that interfere with personal autonomy".

"I don't know if you'd call him a moderniser," Quinn says, "but he is trying to recalibrate things. When he first became Pope, he turned down the volume somewhat on subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage and seemed to turn the volume up on things like immigration and poverty and environment. He's still speaking about those issues, but they're not being reported as much."

Quinn says it is difficult to judge if this pope is more popular among devout Irish Catholics than Benedict or John Paul II were. "They like him because he cuts a very human figure and also a holy and humble figure. But on the other hand, there was a huge outpouring when John Paul died - the numbers that came to Rome.

"Even Pope Benedict, who was supposed to be very unpopular, comes to Britain in 2010 and there had been huge negativity but the whole atmosphere changed when he set foot in the country."

"He has really brought some freshness," O'Connell says, "and from that very first night he appeared on the [Vatican] balcony, he connected with people because he speaks the language of the ordinary people. I think that's what you'll see when he comes to Dublin on Saturday. And while his language is simple, it's powerful. He can say a lot in a few words."

Francis turns 82 in December and, despite his age, may be pontiff for quite some time to come. "He's in very good health and very good spirits so there's no conclave on the horizon," O'Connell says. "We travel with him on the plane to these foreign trips - we're destroyed at the end and he comes back fresh and takes half an hour or an hour's press conference without knowing the questions in advance.

"He really has extraordinary energy - and when he was asked about that stamina he said it was 'the grace of office'."


Pope Francis on...

Clerical sexual abuse

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”



“Last century, the whole world was scandalised by what the Nazis did to purify the race. Today, we do the same thing but with white gloves.”


The impossibility of women priests

“With sacred orders, you can’t do anything because dogmatically it doesn’t go  —  and John Paul II was clear and closed the door, and I won’t turn on this. It was a serious thing, not capricious… But we mustn’t reduce the presence of the women to their role… No, it’s a thing that man can’t do. Man cannot be the bride of Christ. It’s the woman, the Church, the bride of Christ.”


The poor

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”



“If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him? You should not discriminate against or marginalise these people.”



“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”

Pope Francis meets President Donald Trump (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

On US President Donald Trump’s handling of Mexican immigration

“It’s not easy, but populism is not the solution.”


On ambitious clergy

“When a seminarian or priest thinks too much about his career, he starts to suffer from spiritual Alzheimer’s and he loses his memory and forgets where he came from.”


Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News