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Will the Pope's fresh vision give us hope?

Police in Chile are investigating accusations of sexual abuse against bishops and clerics, writes Paddy Agnew

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Pope Francis, pictured arriving at Dublin Airport greets Archbishop Eamon Martin, during his recent visit to Ireland. Photo: David Conachy

Pope Francis, pictured arriving at Dublin Airport greets Archbishop Eamon Martin, during his recent visit to Ireland. Photo: David Conachy

Pope Francis, pictured arriving at Dublin Airport greets Archbishop Eamon Martin, during his recent visit to Ireland. Photo: David Conachy

On Tuesday, it is Independence Day in Chile. This important day in the Chilean calendar is traditionally marked by an ecumenical 'Te Deum' service in Santiago's Metropolitan Cathedral, attended by the country's political and business elites, as well, of course, by the Chilean hierarchy.

Except that this year, a senior Chilean church figure will be missing, namely the Archbishop of Santiago himself, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati. Such is the crisis currently being experienced by the Chilean church that Cardinal Ezzati has opted out of leading the service - for fear that his presence might provoke riots or demonstrations from angry faithful.

Two months ago, police and cathedral personnel had to be summoned when a Mass being celebrated by the 76-year-old cardinal was interrupted by banner-waving protesters calling on all of Chile's bishops to resign in the wake of the clerical sex abuse crisis that has shaken the country. Media reports suggest that Chilean President Sebastian Pinera is relieved that the cardinal will not be leading the service.

The thing is, of course, that police in Chile are currently investigating 38 accusations of sexual abuse against 73 bishops, clerics and lay workers, involving 104 victims of whom approximately half are minors. Chilean prosecutors are also investigating claims that Cardinal Ezzati himself may have covered up child sexual abuse crimes.

Hence, right now, the cardinal is a bitterly divisive figure in Chile. He is, however, probably doing better that Fr Oscar Munoz Toledo, the former Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Santiago. Last July 12, he was arrested on charges that he had abused seven children, five of whom were his nephews. Ironically, one of Fr Toledo's assignments had been to collect the testimony of victims of clerical sexual abuse. In what has been another hectic Vatican week, switch the scene swiftly to the Eternal City itself, Rome. Last Thursday, a small delegation of US Bishops led by the Bishops' Conference President, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, met with Pope Francis to discuss the US situation in the wake of this summer's Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, highlighting sex abuse accusations against more than 300 priests, and also in the wake of the "demotion" of 88-year-old Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of serial sexual harassment in Catholic seminaries.

Even as that meeting began, at almost exactly the same moment the Vatican's daily news "bolletino" was announcing that the Pope had accepted the resignation of Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, Michael Bransfield. The man appointed to replace him as Apostolic Administrator, Archbishop William Lori, soon explained just why Bishop Bransfield was retiring, saying that he had been asked "to conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of adults made against Bishop Bransfield".

Ironically, sitting at the Pope's desk during the meeting in the Apostolic Library was Monsignor Brian Bransfield, the conference general secretary and nephew of Bishop Bransfield. Even more ironic was the fact that the night before the meeting, Associated Press had run a story basically accusing the man leading the US delegation, namely Cardinal DiNardo, of mishandling abuser priest, Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, arrested last Tuesday in Texas on sexual abuse charges.

At the end of a summer marked by revelations of global clerical sexual abuse everywhere, it seems, from Australia to India, from Chile to Honduras and from the US to Germany, Pope Francis could be forgiven if he feels that he has long since run out of fingers to put in all the holes in this particular leaky dyke.

Not for nothing, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, head of the Apostolic Household and private secretary to Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI last week spoke of the Catholic Church's "satanic 9/11 moment". That thought seems to have crossed Francis's mind, too, since in a homily during a private Mass last Tuesday in Santa Marta, he issued the following remarkable statement: "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 scandalize the people..."

In a week when a study commissioned by the German church has claimed that more than 3,600 children were abused by some 1,670 clergy members over the past seven decades in Germany, some might argue that if indeed the 'Great Accuser' (the Devil) is uncovering the sex abuse sins of the priesthood, well then, for once, he is probably doing a good job.

To be fair, Pope Francis, in the meantime has issued a much more practical, significant first riposte to the sex abuse storms by ordering a Vatican summit on the question for next February, due to be attended by one representative of every local church.

In making this unprecedented move, Francis is saying at least two things. Firstly, I simply cannot deal with this phenomenon (nor take all the blame for it) by myself. Secondly, he is acknowledging once and for all that clerical sex abuse is a global problem, which has thus far been shamefully mishandled by the universal Catholic Church.

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There is, of course, always the danger that this laudable initiative will end up as a "Make-Us-All-Feel-Better", photo-op moment that leads to nothing concrete by way of meaningful change. (Was last Thursday's meeting with US Cardinal DiNardo such a photo-op event?)

Let us consider, for a second, the most significant measure introduced by Francis in an attempt to come to terms with the sex abuse crisis, namely his creation of the Pontifical Commission For The Protection Of Minors (PCPM). This body started off with the loftiest of aspirations but has thus far not delivered much, prompting some of its original members such as Irish survivor Marie Collins, an inspired choice, to resign in deep frustration.

Worse still, if you look at Marie's website www.mariecollins.net/chile.html), you will find emails, leaked by the Chilean online news site, El Mostrador, which detail some very interesting exchanges between Cardinal Ezzati of Santiago and his predecessor, 85-year-old Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz, a member of the C9, the Pope's own Privy Council of nine Cardinals with which he governs the Church.

Cardinal Ezzati, the man who these days cannot say Mass in his own cathedral for fear of provoking a riot, writes to Cardinal Errazuriz to complain about "this Irish woman" (Marie Collins) who, after being appointed to the PCPM, had the nerve to suggest that the historic Chilean survivor/whistleblower Juan Carlos Cruz should also be appointed to the new Commission.

Cardinal Ezzati calls on his brother Cardinal to "talk" to those in power in Rome to block an appointment that "would be too terrible for the Church in Chile". Cardinal Errazuriz is ready and willing and more than up to the task, replying: "First thing Monday morning, I will sit in the offices of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (ex-Holy Office) to prevent this evil which you told me about. If he declines, I will speak with the Holy Father."

The point about this is that the two men who successfully blocked the nomination of victim Juan Carlos Cruz are both currently under investigation by the Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias for allegedly protecting sex abuser priests, including the notorious paedophile, Fr Fernando Karadima. In other words, even before it got up and running, the Pontifical Commission For The Protection Of Minors was being undermined and opposed from within.

How many other Ezzatis and Errazuriz around the Catholic world tried to get in there, too, making sure that this particular body would be entirely "stacked" and thus harmless? Not much wonder that Marie Collins and English survivor Peter Saunders both resigned in frustration.

Not surprising either to read that a number of Chilean faithful this year called on Cardinal Errazuriz to be banned from preaching in their parishes because he had insisted on attacking Vatican investigator, Archbishop Charles Sicluna, the man who eventually opened Francis's eyes to the horror stories of Chilean clerical sex abuse.

Worth adding, too, that media speculation in Rome expected the C9 Cardinals' meeting to call on at least two of Francis's closest advisors, namely the said Cardinal Errazuriz and Australian Cardinal Pell, to step down because of their involvement in sex abuse investigations. Perhaps because of precisely that very speculation, Francis has stubbornly stuck by his men. It remains to be seen how wise that will prove to be.

In the wake of the "j'accuse" letter by former US papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, released on the second day of the Pope's visit to Ireland, an important question remains. How much did Francis know? Did he know anything of the above plotting and scheming at HQ by the two Chilean cardinals?

What did he know about the disgraced Cardinal McCarrick? The Vigano document has unleashed a veritable, internal Vatican civil war with the ultra orthodox, conservative right-wing all too happy to pounce on a perceived Francis weakness.

It is not that most of these prelate/critics are passionately on the side of abuse victims. Rather, they have finally found a stick with which to beat the loathed Francis who (as they see it) tends to over-emphasise "a church of the poor for the poor" and an all-embracing pastoral approach, in the process introducing quasi-heretical notions such as allowing divorcees to receive communion.

In its haste to defend Francis, however, the Pope's camp has also gone overboard producing more incriminating documents than have been seen since the Nuremberg Trials. In its defensive zeal, the Francis camp has established, beyond doubt, that Cardinal McCarrick's serial sexual harassment of seminary students was known about in the Holy See (and by the US hierarchy) since sometime around 2000. So, how come it took three Popes and nearly 20 years to do anything about him? Perhaps because nobody really wanted to?

Pope Francis appears to have had a road-to-Damascus moment this year in relation to clerical sex abuse, prompted firstly by getting it so wrong on Chile (but correcting himself) and perhaps prompted secondly by his recent visit to Ireland, the veritable ground zero of all clerical sex abuse. Catholics and men and women of good will can only hope that his refocused vision will mean that his Summit on sex abuse next February will, in the end, prove to be an important, ground-shifting event. On all past Vatican form, however, that remains more a hope than a realistic expectation.


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