Michael Kelly: 'Summit crucial in defining the Pope's legacy on issue of child abuse'
Few things in the wider world interest people more than the inner workings of the Catholic Church and the process of electing a new Pope. The intrigue that follows the death - or abdication - of a pontiff has frequently been the subject of films and plays, including 'The Shoes of the Fisherman' with Anthony Quinn and 'The Pope Must Die' with Robbie Coltrane. Anyone who has read the novel 'Conclave' by Robert Harris gets an unrivalled glimpse into a centuries-old ritual culminating with the white smoke that notifies a waiting world from a makeshift chimney that the Church once again has a leader.
The Pope's decision on Thursday to tap Irishman Cardinal Kevin Farrell as the Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church means the Dublin-native will have a key role when Francis either dies or decides to follow the lead of his predecessor and steps down.
As camerlengo, Farrell effectively takes possession of the Vatican when there is no Pope. He certifies the death of a Pope and notifies the world that a period of sede vacante has begun and the search for a new pontiff must begin. As the man charged with organising meetings of the College of Cardinals, he has a unique hand in shaping the conversations around who the next Bishop of Rome will be.
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His assignment by Francis is a sign that the Argentine thinks that Farrell is a man in his mould and will want a successor to carry on the simple form of the papacy that the present incumbent has embraced.
The current Pope is hugely popular with the general public, but the issue of clerical sexual abuse could still wreck his pontificate and mar his reputation as an open-minded reformer.
That's why the Pope has called leaders of the Church from all over the world - including Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin - to Rome next week for a key summit on the protection of minors.
It's no secret that last summer's papal visit to Dublin was, well, underwhelming. It wasn't just chaos around organisation and the fact that Ireland is not as self-consciously Catholic as when St John Paul II visited in 1979. The Church's failings loomed large - and the finger pointed squarely at Francis himself.
Devastating reports from Australia and the United States had catapulted the issue of sexual abuse in the Church centre-stage. Francis's own initial denial about allegations from Chile left him guilty of being at best ambivalent about the issue, and at worst part of the problem.
Set beside the sickening revelations from every corner of Ireland over the last 25 years, it made for a toxic mix and proved to be the rather depressing background music for the entire trip. As one senior Irish cleric complained to me afterwards: "Just as we were getting over this, he landed and brought a whole mess of his own making with him."
It was a rare taste of unpopularity for the Argentine pontiff as his magic touch seemed to no longer work. Francis has been used to adulation and praise for his simple style and direct language.
From 'Time' magazine to gay advocacy groups, the world has seen in him a humble advocate for those on the margins of both Church and state.
Yet, his apparent slowness to learn the painful lessons of the past and make the protection of children and vulnerable adults his top priority may yet derail his papacy and leave even his most ardent of supporters with dashed hopes.
The crunch meeting brings together the most senior churchmen from almost 200 countries and the eyes of the Catholic world are looking to Rome. The faithful who have held on to their Catholicism during this tempest have looked to the upper echelons of the Church with a mixture of incredulity and anger. How, they wonder, have the lessons of Ireland not been learned in other countries?
Let's face it, if there was a ground zero of the abuse crisis, it was here. Pope Benedict XVI observed almost a decade ago that the scandals in Ireland "have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing". It's a sobering thought.
But, in fairness, recent decades have seen a Church transformed. Gone are the protection of reputations and the avoidance of scandal, and accountability and best practise are now the order of the day when it comes to child protection. God knows it was a painful journey with many lives wrecked, but the Church here now operates policies that can only be described as the gold standard.
The problem is in many parts of the world the global Church appears to have gained nothing from our bitter experiences. Every month brings fresh revelations and claims from a different part of the world. And yet, this tsunami has yet to hit developing countries in Africa and Asia. Some prelates in these regions have even insisted child abuse is impossible in their cultural context.
I've got news for them: there are people who seek to do harm to children in every culture and way of life. This Rome summit needs to hammer home this trust and ensure that action is taken now. If not, we likely face decades of fresh revelations of the same pattern of abuse and cover-up as country after country emulates our mistakes.
Not only would that be a catastrophe for the victims, it would be a permanent black mark against Francis and his inability to get a grip of this crisis. Whether he knows it or not, it's a make-or-break summit for the Pope.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper