Thursday 18 July 2019

Francis isn't asked about abuse because he reminds us of Jesus

Pope Francis waves as he leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican earlier this week
Pope Francis waves as he leaves after his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican earlier this week

David Quinn

It is a remarkable thing that in the various interviews he has granted to date, Pope Francis hasn't been asked to reflect in any substantial way at all on the clerical child abuse scandals.

On his flight back from World Youth Day in Brazil a few months ago, he spent 80 minutes answering questions from journalists and the matter did not come up.

When he granted a lengthy and widely reported interview to various Jesuit publications more recently, again, he was not asked about it.

And when the atheist founder of one of Italy's leading newspapers, 'La Repubblica', interviewed him shortly after that, it did not occur to the interviewer to bring it up.

Here in Ireland, the Catholic Church's child protection office has published its latest audits of the child protection procedures of a selection of the country's dioceses and religious orders.

The usual pattern emerged. In the dioceses, the scandals were at their peak in the 1970s and 1980s. In the case of religious congregations such as the Christian Brothers, the scandals were at their peak when the industrial schools were still operating.

The audits found once again that up until around the mid-1990s, the church dealt with the scandals appallingly badly and since then there has been a dramatic and incremental improvement.

In fact, the church's child protection systems are now probably the best in the country. On a regular basis, we discover that the State has been failing to implement its own child protection systems properly with sometimes terrible consequences for children.

However, no one within the apparatus of the State ever seems to be held accountable for these failures and there is never any real public demand that someone be held accountable, unlike in Britain where senior social workers have sometimes had to resign over particularly bad child protection failures.

Returning to Pope Francis, given that the church in every part of the world has been hit by these scandals, the fact that he is not asked about child sexual abuse by journalists is, as I say, remarkable.

The contrast with the attitude of journalists towards his predecessor Pope Benedict could hardly be sharper. Benedict was indelibly associated in the minds of many people with the scandals.

There were two main reasons for this. The first is that he was a doctrinal conservative and the perception, quite incorrectly, is that conservative bishops were much more likely to cover up the scandals than their more liberal counterparts.

In fact, there appeared to be no difference between the two. Unfortunately there are also plenty of examples of liberal bishops sending guilty priests off for 'treatment' and then moving them to another parish.

Also, plenty of the religious orders that handled the scandals badly were very liberal indeed.

The second reason why Benedict was so associated with the scandals is that he worked at the Vatican for so long. The Vatican did handle things as badly as the rest of the church but in fact Benedict (or Cardinal Ratzinger as he was at the time) did more than any other Vatican official to put the Vatican's house in order in this regard.

But Francis is not perceived as a conservative, nor did he ever work at the Vatican. This means he is seen as a break with the past.

In addition, he has proven himself to be an absolute master of the symbolic gesture and each of those gestures has indicated a break with tradition. There was his appearance on the balcony of St Peter's in simple, white garb. He paid his own bill for his stay at the Vatican hotel during the period of the papal election. He moved out of the papal apartments into a room at that same hotel. He took the name of the most popular saint in history.

He has adopted a tone that emphasises mercy rather than moral standards, even though he believes in those standards and in his own personal spirituality is very traditional and speaks regularly about the Devil as a real being.

He has also been helped enormously by a media that hopes against hope that Francis is a sort of mini-Hans Kung (the famous dissident theologian) and will eventually shift the church on issues like women priests and sexual morality.

'Time' magazine has made him its 'Person of the Year' for 2013 and the accompanying article favourably contrasts the pastoral Francis with his supposedly less pastoral predecessors.

It is true that Benedict was an academic and this lent itself to an image of austerity, but he was also a very humble, shy, gentle person, which we saw for ourselves when he visited Britain to great popular acclaim in 2010.

For his part, John Paul II was an excellent and devoted pastor. When appointed to his first parish as a young priest in Poland in 1948, for example, he gave away almost all of his meagre possessions to the poor of the parish and always lived a frugal life.

Ultimately it is a mistake to see Francis as either a 'conservative' or a 'liberal'. He is simply a deeply Christian man who reminds us of Jesus. There is no higher praise than that. It's what makes him so appealing.

It is also why journalists don't ask him about the scandals. We know what Jesus would have thought of the abuse of children and how he would have dealt with the perpetrators. We think the same about Francis.

Irish Independent

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