Opinion

Monday 17 December 2018

Does Pope Francis really 'get it' over Church's grim history of sex abuse?

The Pope has to show he can pick up the broken pieces after the Vatican's failure to confront abuse by its priests and Bishops, writes Paddy Agnew

CONTROVERSY: Pope Francis with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who tried to negotiate an agreement with the Irish State in 2003 and 2004 for Church indemnity over sex-abuse legal actions. Photo: Getty Images
CONTROVERSY: Pope Francis with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who tried to negotiate an agreement with the Irish State in 2003 and 2004 for Church indemnity over sex-abuse legal actions. Photo: Getty Images

Paddy Agnew

When it comes to assessing the Catholic Church's ongoing global clerical sex abuse crisis, one of the questions most often asked is: Does Pope Francis really "get it"?

Many Vatican observers will point out that he has learned a lot on the subject in the last five years, adding, however, that he has not always been helped by reluctant sections of the Vatican Curia. This is undoubtedly so but does it not rather let Europe's last remaining absolute monarch off the hook?

Is it not simply much more likely that a man of his age (81) and his formation in the megalopolis of Buenos Aires will be strong on social solidarity and collegiality but perhaps a little "blind" to the heinous crime of paedophilia?

This was the week when we learned from both former President Mary McAleese and former Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern that in 2003 and in 2004 the then Vatican Secretary of State (Prime Minister) Cardinal Angelo Sodano, had attempted to negotiate some sort of "concordat" with the Irish State. The proposed agreement would have guaranteed the Catholic Church an indemnity against legal actions for compensation by clerical child sexual-abuse survivors.

When former Taoiseach Enda Kenny said in that famous 2011 Dail speech that the Vatican's reaction "to the rape and torture of children" was "to parse and analyse it with the gimlet eye of a canon lawyer", he might have been thinking of Cardinal Sodano. Ever the quintessential "company man", the skilful Cardinal Sodano was attempting to do some good business for the "firm".

Ninety-year-old Sodano is an old-style Vatican diplomat. He is the man who "protected" the disgraced Legion of Christ founder and abuser, Marcial Maciel, largely because of the latter's fundraising prowess. In 2010, during an Easter Sunday ceremony in St Peter's, Cardinal Sodano urged Pope Benedict XVI not to be distracted by "idle gossip", in a reference to media coverage of the global clerical sex abuse scandal.

When Cardinal Sodano proposed some sort of concordat, he was not proposing just any old agreement - concordats are "international" agreements between the Vatican and a foreign state which, by and large, offer privileges to the Church often in return for little more than political "kudos". Furthermore, as "international" treaties, the concordat cannot later be simply changed or rejected by parliament.

Incidentally, President Mc- Aleese and Mr Ahern were not the only distinguished Vatican visitors to receive such a request. When then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, visited the Holy See in February 2005, she too was "surprised" by Cardinal Sodano.

This time, the Vatican Prime Minister asked the Secretary of State if the United States government could stop a class-action lawsuit then before a District Court in Louisville, Kentucky. The action sought to hold the Vatican financially responsible for the sexual abuse of minors. By all accounts, the Secretary of State's response was a polite "no", pointing out that this was not how the American system of justice works.

When Cardinal Sodano asked Ireland for an indemnity, he was trying to head-off legal liabilities of the sort which, in the USA, have so far cost the Catholic church more than $3bn. Senior Irish diplomatic sources have confirmed to the Sunday Independent that a small number of people were aware of the Sodano proposal, adding however, that for Irish constitutional and legal reasons, not to mention political appropriacy, the idea was always a "non-runner".

One of those "out of the loop" on the issue was the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, the host to Francis at the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) this month. At that time, Archbishop Martin was serving as the Vatican's man at the UN in Geneva. Although he actually delivered an address at the celebrations marking 75 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and the Holy See, the occasion on which Cardinal Sodano talked to Minister Ahern, the Archbishop says that he was not aware of any such proposal.

When Pope Francis comes to Dublin, he will have to work hard to reassure the Irish, believers and non-believers alike, that the logic of the "company" men is not still very much alive and well in his Church. Are we sure that the institution, the "firm", still does not come first?

Clearly, Francis can have no responsibility for the actions 15 years ago of the then Secretary of State. However, Cardinal Sodano's best instincts, namely to protect the institution and not the child, were simply par for the course at that time.

With the universal Catholic Church still being rocked by clerical sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups, from Chile (Barros) to Australia (Pell) and from Croatia (Ljubicic) to the USA (McCarrick), Francis has his work cut out for him trying to persuade us that things really have changed.

Given the Irish Catholic Church's controversial recent past, it was always possible that the spectre of the last 20 years of sex abuse scandal would loom menacingly over the Pope's visit. Not surprisingly, in the last week, there have been indications of precisely this, as evidenced by the Garden of Remembrance protest planned for Sunday, August 26 and by the call from global movement Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) for the Pope to remove three Cardinals - the Honduran Oscar Maradiaga, Irishman Kevin Farrell and American Donald Wuerl - from the WMOF event because of their alleged links to the cover-up of clerical sex abuse.

Vatican insiders and observers alike acknowledge that, even if ostensibly the Pope comes to attend the Vatican-run WMOF celebration, he cannot NOT address the sex abuse issue and its history. Asked by the Sunday Independent if he was worried that Francis might be greeted with a "hostile" atmosphere, Archbishop Martin said: "There is hostility, left, right and centre... and then this is the (media) silly season. The dominant thing is that the numbers are large and that there is a growing interest in the event..."

However, abuse survivor and activist, Irishwoman Marie Collins, told the Sunday Independent that the Pope "simply has to" confront the whole painful business of the Irish Church's handling (or non-handling) of the horrendous systematic abuse, often of children, within the walls of Catholic institutions. The list is long and grim - orphanages, industrial schools, reformatories, Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, not to mention many parishes.

Collins adds: "He (the Pope) cannot come and say nothing, he cannot come to Ireland and ignore the devastation and the hurt."

Marie Collins's own experience as a member of Francis's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, of course, does not augur well, in that she resigned after serving for two years, frustrated at the lack of significant progress.

Collins now says that she was totally convinced of Francis's good will in attempting to improve, reform and codify the Church's response to an epidemic that, as recently as 2016, saw 416 priests investigated by the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith (CDF) on alleged sex abuse charges.

However, she also says that it eventually became clear to her and fellow lay members of the Commission that the Curia, in this case the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, systematically blocked any Commission proposal it disliked.

What could Francis do or say in Ireland to convince her and other survivors, I asked?

The answer, and she is not the only one to have said this to me in the last week, was immediate. For starters, when the Pope is "accepting" the "resignation" of a Bishop or priest who has in some way been involved in child sex-abuse crimes, then he should state this in the Vatican's infamous "Bolletino" (Vatican announcements).

Currently, when a Bishop or priest's resignation is accepted, it is done along the lines of article 401 of the code of Canon Law, namely on the basis of age (75 or over) or for other unspecified "grave reasons". Collins says that if the reasons are related to paedophile crime then this should be stated.

Nothing so much illustrates Pope Francis's handling of sex-abuse as the manner in which he has dealt with the current Chilean crisis. It was the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the southern Chilean diocese of Osorno in 2015 which sparked the Chilean controversy. Barros was allegedly linked to a notorious Chilean abuser priest, Father Fernando Karadima, not only his "mentor" but also someone who had been found guilty by the Vatican in 2011 of sexually abusing minors.

The Barros appointment prompted a volcanic eruption of protest. Local Catholics, Karadima victims, the Chilean parliament, the Vatican's own Commission for the Protection of Minors, Chilean politicians and the Chilean media all focused on the case. Francis, however, stubbornly stuck to his appointment.

The turning point came in January of this year when Francis visited Chile, against a background of anti-Barros protest. On the plane back from Chile, the Pope said there had been no credible accusations against Barros, prompting even the head of the Minors Commission, Cardinal O'Malley to distance himself. In the end, under pressure, the Pope sent papal envoys to Chile to investigate.

Having read their 2,300 word report, Francis quickly changed tack. By April, he was admitting to "serious errors of judgment... especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information". By June, he had accepted the resignation of Barros.

As the Chilean crisis grows, Francis has now accepted the resignations of four more Bishops. More may follow. However, last week in a letter to the Chilean Bishops, Francis complimented them on their "reflection" on their failure to properly deal with the problem in the first place.

That letter prompted dismay among some of the Osorno faithful, with activist Juan Carlos Claret saying: "This letter has become a true praise to the inoperative (behaviour) of the Bishops of Chile and to the crimes committed by them..."

Sixteen years ago, I was one of hundreds of journalists who attended a press conference in Rome given by the then President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Wilton Gregory. He and the US Bishops had been summoned to Rome to try to clean up the US clerical abuse crisis, as highlighted above all by the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law (featured in the film Spotlight), a man accused by the Boston faithful of massive cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests in the archdiocese.

Gregory told us then of his concern that, in certain quarters, seminaries were "now known as feminaries". This week, he issued a statement, expressing his disappointment, in relation to the recent removal from public ministry of 88-year-old Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for various sexual abuse offences.

In particular, he bemoaned a lack of accountability and the rise to "leadership positions" in the Catholic Church of people guilty of "damaging and deviant" behaviour, saying: "The Holy See may well have dismissed multiple warning signs that would have stopped McCarrick and others earlier in their careers."

Francis did not create the conditions for the McCarrick scandal, nor for any of the others. However, he has to pick up the broken pieces. It does not help him that three of the Cardinals in the C9 "privy council" of his chosen advisors (Honduran Maradiaga, Australian Pell and Chilean Errazuriz) are all now linked to allegations of abuse or cover-up.

Francis's visit to Dublin offers him another chance to show that, his own mistakes notwithstanding, he can put his house in order. Otherwise, we really will have to conclude that he just doesn't get it.

Sunday Independent

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