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John L. Allen Jr. | Analysis

Perils of a ‘let it all hang out’ pope

Pope Francis talked to journalists during a press conference he held aboard the papal flight on his way back to Rome at the end of a three day trip to the Middle East on Monday.ANDREW MEDICHINI/AFP/Getty Images

ROME -- People tend to distrust public figures who refuse to indulge curiosity about who they are and what they’re doing. Those who open up generally get a bump in both popularity and credibility, and Pope Francis’ willingness, even delight, in doing so has been part of his appeal from the very beginning.

Few in the world, and none in the press, would want that to change.

Still, there can also be a price for transparency, which the pontiff neatly illustrated Monday night.

As he did last July during his return flight from Brazil to Rome, Francis once again decided to hold a press conference at the end of an international trip. After he wrapped up a brief but grueling three-day visit to the Middle East, Francis stood with reporters travelling on the papal plane for roughly an hour and fielded questions on a variety of topics.


Midway through a Vatican spokesman tried to shut down the exchange only to be overruled by the pope, who wanted to keep going.

The main news flash centered on Francis’ announcement that he plans to celebrate a Mass with a small group of victims of clerical sexual abuse and to hold a meeting with them, a session in which Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston will also be involved.

Plans for such a session had not previously been announced. Francis said the meeting would involve six to eight victims, from countries including England, Germany and Ireland, and would take place either June 6 or June 7.

At one level the announcement seemed a good news story for the Vatican, despite the fact that a spokesman for one victims’ advocacy group dismissed it as a “savvy public relations move that will protect no kids.” It expressed resolve to confront the abuse scandals, and was timely in the wake of a second United Nations report criticizing the Vatican’s response issued the day before the Middle East trip began.


So what’s the problem?

For one thing, the pope jumped the gun on the dates. After news broke that he had said it would take place in early June, the Archdiocese of Boston issued a statement saying that it’s being organized in “coming months.’’ The official Vatican transcript of the press conference released Monday edited the pope’s remarks, taking the dates out of his reply and placing the Italian word prossimamente on his lips, meaning “soon.”

More deeply, there may be concern that premature publicity could damage the integrity of the experience.

Pope Benedict XVI held six meetings with abuse victims over the course of his papacy: in the United States and Australia in 2008; a meeting in Rome with Canadian “First Nations” victims at church-run residential schools in 2009; meetings during trips to Malta and the United Kingdom in 2010; and another meeting with German victims during a state visit to the former pontiff’s homeland in 2011.

A formula emerged for these sessions, one element of which was that the Vatican would not make an announcement until after they had occurred. The idea was to avoid any appearance of a publicity stunt, or turning the experience into a media circus for the victims.

The choice was left to the victims as to whether they wanted to make themselves available to the media afterwards, on the premise that some might have no desire to go public. There was also concern that some might not want to be publicly identified out of concern over blowback from victims’ advocacy groups that see such meetings as handing the Church a hollow public relations victory.


It remains to be seen whether announcing the session in advance will have any adverse impact on the willingness of victims to participate.

Moreover, the pope may also have courted confusion about the actual state of the Vatican’s efforts to respond to the legacy of abuse.

The question to which he was responding concerned accountability, meaning his willingness to discipline bishops who fail to apply the Church’s official “zero tolerance” policy, including cooperation with civil authorities. In response, Francis said there will be no “privileges” and that three bishops are currently facing a Vatican investigation.

In context, however, it was not clear if he meant that the three bishops are being investigated for allegedly mishandling abuse complaints against others, or for abuse they themselves are alleged to have committed. On background, Vatican officials on Monday said the pontiff may have had the latter in mind.

In other words, the pope may have created as many questions as he answered, despite his best efforts to be transparent.

To be sure, part of Francis’ cachet is his willingness to cast aside what’s traditionally been seen as a thick blanket of Vatican secrecy. He’s obviously committed to an open-door policy, even overruling his handlers about how long he was willing to meet the press.


Few things in life, however, are an unmixed blessing, and Monday’s papal flight seemed to capture both the great promise and occasional peril of letting it all hang out.

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