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Analysis | John L. Allen Jr.

Pope Francis vs. critics on sex abuse: Both sides have a point

Pope Francis waved at the end of his weekly general audience. AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis may have won hearts and minds around the world with his simplicity and common touch, but he offered proof today that he’s also not afraid to put his approval ratings on the line when he thinks there’s a point to be made.

In an extended conversation with the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, which was also published in the Argentine daily La Nacion, the pontiff not only vigorously defended the Catholic church’s record on its child sexual abuse scandals, but also complained that “the church is the only one attacked.”

While the pope touched on many other points in the interview, from divorced and remarried Catholics and birth control to some of the urban myths that have grown up around him, it was his comments on the abuse scandals that seemed most destined to spark reaction.


It wasn’t long in coming.

Within minutes, one advocacy group for victims of clerical abuse had blasted the pope’s rhetoric as “archaic and defensive,” while another styled it as proof that “he doesn’t get it.” Many Catholic voices, however, hailed the comments as a long-overdue rebuttal to a biased habit of ignoring the strides the church has taken, as well as making it a scapegoat for a broader social problem.

What to make of the stark contrast over what Francis had to say? The truth of it is that both sides probably have a point.

To be sure, the Catholic church today is worlds apart from where it was when the first reports about abuser priests began to appear in the Globe 12 years ago.

Back then, “zero tolerance” was nowhere on the horizon either in the US or in Rome, and Vatican officials felt free to openly dismiss talk of an abuse crisis as a media-driven “American problem.”

Today, however, the Catholic church has officially embraced “zero tolerance” and has adopted streamlined procedures for weeding abusers out of the priesthood – so much so, in fact, that some church lawyers regard what’s happening today as a form of “cowboy justice” that rides roughshod over the due process rights of the accused.


Similarly, 12 years ago a senior Vatican official could publicly applaud a French bishop who refused to report an abuse complaint against one of his priests to the police. Today, the Vatican’s line is that bishops are obligated to follow the law of the land and to cooperate fully with civil and criminal investigations.

The cardinal who issued that letter of praise in 2001, meanwhile, retired in disgrace in 2009 after being publicly cut loose by a Vatican spokesperson.

Over the past 12 years, the Catholic church around the world also has invested untold millions in running background checks on personnel, implementing abuse prevention and detection programs, and offering outreach services to victims.

Some of those anti-abuse efforts, such as the “Protecting God’s Children” program in the United States pioneered by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, are considered state of the art even by secular child protection professionals with no vested interest in defending the Catholic church.

Certainly Francis’ defense of Pope Benedict XVI will resonate with anyone who knows the arc of this story on the Vatican end.

Under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith became the beachhead for the reform camp during the late John Paul years, often facing significant resistance from other Vatican departments.


As pope, Benedict XVI not only met with victims but he also brought down Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the late founder of the Legionaries of Christ, whose close Vatican connections and considerable financial resources were once believed to insulate him from charges of sexual abuse and misconduct.

In other words, there’s no doubt Francis is onto something.

However, many observers of the church’s response insist that these steps remain at best incomplete, and at worst, provide cover for not getting to the heart of the problem.

For one thing, critics note that from a global point of view the Catholic approach to fighting child abuse remains decidedly uneven. Those countries where the church has been hit hardest, and where it’s paid the steepest price in legal bills – for instance, the United States, Germany and Ireland – tend to have strong anti-abuse policies.

In many other parts of the world, however, including Francis’ own Argentina, bishops’ conferences have only recently adopted anti-abuse guidelines under Vatican pressure, and they often lag behind the curve in terms of prevention and detection efforts.

It mystifies many ordinary people why the Vatican can insist on doctrinal uniformity, and back it up with action, but can’t seem to impose a similarly across-the-board approach to what is arguably the greatest crisis to face Catholicism in this generation.

Critics also insist that the church’s repeated pledges to “come clean” will ring hollow until the Vatican permits independent access to its own archives, and requires that dioceses and religious orders around the world do the same.


Perhaps the single most persistent claim of unfinished business regards the question of accountability, not only for priests who commit abuse but bishops who cover it up.

Critics often cite the case of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a misdemeanor offense of failing to report a charge of child abuse, yet remains in office and has not suffered any form of ecclesiastical censure.

That’s especially jarring to many observers because Francis has been willing to use the powers of his office to call bishops to account in other areas, such as the infamous “bling bishop” in Germany who was removed after reportedly spending more than $40 million remodeling his residence.

As long as there’s no real punishment for bishops who fail to follow the church’s norms, critics argue, then “zero tolerance” is basically just words on paper.

Why didn’t Francis at least give a nod to those criticisms? Perhaps he felt that in most media discussion and public opinion, the “glass half empty” side often gets the most traction and wanted to balance the scales.

As time goes on, however, he’ll likely be pressed to acknowledge that he sees the critics’ point too. If he seems indifferent, it could mark a pivot point in the honeymoon the new pope’s enjoyed so far.

By meeting critics halfway, Francis also might be in a position to help repair the trust deficit the church and the Vatican often face, which means that even when they try to do the right thing they encounter skepticism.


For instance, at the moment there’s a Polish archbishop named Josef Wesolowski who faces abuse accusations from his time as a papal envoy in the Dominican Republic. Pope Francis has decided that Wesolowski will undergo a criminal process in a Vatican tribunal, the first time that’s happened related to a sex abuse complaint, and Vatican officials have hailed the move as a breakthrough.

Critics, however, who simply won’t trust a Vatican court to do the job, are demanding that Wesolowski be extradited to either Poland or the Dominican Republic, despite the fact that as a papal ambassador he’s a Vatican citizen.

One looming test of Francis’s commitment is likely to center on a new papal anti-abuse commission, which was announced to considerable fanfare in early December by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston in Rome.

After three months the Vatican still has not unveiled the leadership or staff for the commission, nor made clear precisely what its mandate will be. A legal document giving it formal status is said to be in the works.

Especially in light of Francis’ comments today, observers will be watching closely to see how quickly that announcement comes, and how convincing it is when it does.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook,