As anyone who paid attention in history class knows, when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés landed in what’s now Mexico in 1519, he promptly scuttled his ships, thereby leaving his men no choice but to press on in conquest of the Aztec empire. For centuries, that rash act has loomed as an object lesson in total commitment.
This week Pope Francis scuttled some ships of his own, on two fronts which have been sources of scandal and heartache for the Catholic Church: sex and money.
On Monday, Francis held his first meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse. Two days later, the Vatican announced a sweeping financial overhaul, including new leadership and a sharply limited role for the troubled Vatican bank.
There’s such hunger in the world to believe Francis is the real deal that it’s tempting to confuse announcing a plan for reform with actually implementing it. To be clear, what happened this week was not reform itself — it was more like a prelude to action, an attempt to create the conditions for something good to happen.
In both cases, the key effect was to commit Pope Francis definitively to a particular course of action.
On the abuse front, the fact that Francis met with victims was no novelty, as Benedict XVI held such encounters six times. Likewise there was no breakthrough in his plea for forgiveness, since such apologies date all the way back to 1993 when John Paul II voiced sorrow for the sins of “some ministers of the altar.” They became sharper under Benedict XVI, who first used the magic words “I’m sorry” in Australia in 2008.
Nor was Francis’ pledge of zero tolerance a novelty. The classic papal statement comes from an April 2002 speech by John Paul II to American cardinals: “There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
Yet the July 7 meeting wasn’t entirely old hat, because Francis had something groundbreaking to say on accountability. Here’s the line: “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”
When popes and Vatican officials have been asked about accountability in the past, they almost always replied in terms of punishment for clergy who abuse rather than bishops who fail to act. Most people would say real accountability means consequences not just for the crime but for the coverup, and Francis has now pledged that he’ll deliver.
That’s one ship scuttled: If people do not see the pontiff holding bishops to account, he’ll have nowhere to deflect the blame.
On finances, the Vatican unveiled changes on Wednesday that include tapping French businessman Jean-Baptiste de Franssu as the new president of the Vatican bank, creating an “Asset Management” office to coordinate several billion dollars in investments currently spread across several departments, launching study panels for pensions and media operations, and assigning the new Secretariat for the Economy control over purchasing and human resources.
Several aspects of the strategy seem clear, including breaking the Italian monopoly on money management by bringing in international experts, and injecting a healthy dose of laity into what has heretofore been a mostly clerical governance structure.
In political terms, however, the clear take-away is that the Secretariat for the Economy under Australian Cardinal George Pell is the Vatican’s new 800-pound gorilla. It absorbed a key chunk of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, or APSA, the new asset management office answers to Pell, and de Franssu at the Vatican bank is a Pell ally.
Yes, there are checks and balances. Yes, as Pell insists, the financial experts who now sit on boards aren’t milquetoasts likely to just rubber-stamp whatever’s put in front of them.
The Vatican’s anti-money-laundering watchdog unit under Swiss lawyer Renè Bruelhart also remains independent. Its new board includes a former Bush administration official named Juan Zarate who literally wrote the book on combatting financial crime, a 2013 volume titled “Treasury’s War,” and such figures probably won’t be inclined to gamble with their reputations.
That said, there’s also no doubt about who’s in command, and his name is George Pell.
As one proof of the point, there’s no role in the new structures for the Secretariat of State, which traditionally has wielded almost unchallenged authority over internal management. On the power of the purse, the pope has sidelined it in favor of Pell’s team.
That’s the other ship down: Francis now has fully committed himself to the Secretariat for the Economy as his chosen engine of reform. If things go south, there will be no way to disassociate him from the outcome.
In an interview with the Globe, Pell said the aim of the cleanup operation is to get the Vatican “off the gossip pages” due to financial scandals, making it “boringly successful.”
Time will tell if that happens, as it will as to whether the pope cracks episcopal heads over the abuse scandals. What’s no longer up for grabs is whether those are the correct standards for evaluating success, because the pope has set the bar himself.
Like Cortés and his men five centuries ago, after this week, Francis has left himself no exit strategy.
‘Open-minded’ shepherd rises in Germany
One of the key questions about Pope Francis is whether he’ll be able to make his more moderate and tolerant vision of Catholicism stick by naming bishops around the world aligned with his way of seeing things.
To date there’s been little to go on, because while Francis has shuffled the deck at the Vatican he hasn’t made many top-shelf appointments elsewhere. On Friday, however, he did just that in Germany, and at least in this instance it seems the pope found his man.
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Berlin was appointed on Friday as the new archbishop of Cologne, which is among the largest and wealthiest Catholic jurisdictions in the world.
Woelki, who turns 59 next month, takes over from 80-year-old Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who stepped down in February. Generally seen as an arch-conservative, Meisner had been a close confidante of Pope Benedict XVI, with the two men typically speaking on the phone at least once a week.
Born in Cologne, Woelki was perceived as a Meisner protégé early in his career, meaning someone cut from the same ideological cloth. He earned a doctorate at Opus Dei’s university in Rome, and was criticized when named to Berlin in 2011 for referring to homosexuality as an “offense against the order of creation.” Critics worried that a son of heavily Catholic Cologne would be unsuited for Berlin’s largely secular, and highly diverse, milieu.
Yet by most accounts, leading the church in such an environment brought something out in Woelki. He became an apostle of dialogue, holding meetings with leaders of the gay community and saying that, while the church believes marriage is between a man and a woman, it can also see that a long-term caring relationship between two people of the same sex deserves special moral consideration.
Woelki developed into a sort of Francis before his time, calling on the church to dial down the rhetoric in the culture wars.
“The church is not a moral institution that goes around pointing its finger at people,” he said. “The church is a community of seekers and believers, and it would like to help people find happiness in life.”
In 2012, a German “Alliance against Homophobia” actually nominated Woelki for a “Respect Award,” saying he had promoted a “new cooperation with homosexuals in society.” (Woelki expressed gratitude but politely declined.)
Woelki also emerged as a leader among the German bishops on poverty relief and advocacy on behalf of immigrants and refugees. He took a special interest in the work of the Catholic charitable agency Caritas. At a personal level Woelki comes off as humble, not wearing a lot of ecclesiastical finery and not taking himself overly seriously.
The German news service Deutsche Welle described his profile on Friday as “open-minded, tolerant, and concerned for the poor.”
Given that background, even some progressives in the North Rhine-Westphalia region centering on Cologne, who generally saw Meisner as a bête noire, have expressed cautious optimism.
Volker Beck, a member of parliament and a spokesman for the Green Party, said he sees Woelki as a man of dialogue.
“He’s a conservative, but he has shown in Berlin that he can reach out to people,” Beck said. “He meets people as a spiritual shepherd, not as an opinionated dogmatic.”
Granted, Woelki was born in Cologne and retains strong ties to the city and the archdiocese — he’s even a fan of the local soccer club, 1 FC Köln. It would have been odd if he hadn’t gotten serious consideration for the job, which means it’s not as if Francis broke the mold in naming him.
On the other hand, there were other choices, and given how important Cologne is to the global church, it’s a safe bet this decision landed on the pope’s desk. It’s therefore telling that for such an important post, Francis picked a prelate whose reputation is eerily similar to his own.
Not only does the result set a tone for Germany, it’s also a clear message to papal ambassadors elsewhere that this is the kind of leader the new boss wants.
Interview with abuse victim
Though I’m hardly an unbiased observer, I have some experience covering the Vatican, which I believe entitles me to this observation: I’m not sure anyone has ever had a more impressive debut on the beat than what the Boston Globe’s Inés San Martín has turned in during early July 2014.
Consider what she’s pulled off in just the last week:
■ On Monday, she not only provided a comprehensive story on Pope Francis’ first meeting with victims of sexual abuse for the Globe’s print and online editions, she also scored the only extended interview with one of those victims.
■ On Tuesday, she unpacked a highly technical release from the Vatican bank about its fiscal 2013 performance, filing 600 words readers didn’t need an MBA to decipher.
■ On Wednesday, she filed a write-up on a sweeping series of financial reforms announced by the Vatican — with her copy actually arriving for editing before a news conference describing the moves was even finished.
■ On Thursday, she filed a delightful piece on the “pope vs. pope” dynamic of Sunday’s World Cup final, which pits Francis’ Argentina against Benedict XVI’s Germany. Among other tidbits, she revealed that then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio kept a piece of wood from the bleachers of his favorite team’s stadium in his Buenos Aires office.
That’s simply the work product we’ve seen in print. She’s also simultaneously chasing several other stories that will roll out shortly.
San Martin’s interview with the victim is especially noteworthy. Working her sources, she made contact with 57-year-old Peter Saunders from the United Kingdom, founder of a group called the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, or NAPAC, before the meeting, and made arrangements to interview him shortly afterwards.
Among other things, that’s how she was able to report that the first encounter between pope and victims wasn’t actually Monday morning at Mass, but Sunday evening at the dinner table at the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where the pope lives and the victims stayed overnight.
The following are a few highlights from that conversation.
Globe: What was the impact of that first encounter at the Santa Marta?
Saunders: It was a game-changer. I remember going to bed having my unease laid to rest. I’d met the guy and realized that he’s just an ordinary man in an extraordinary job. I don’t want to talk in the name of the others, but I think he put all of as at ease with his informality.
What can you tell us about your time with the pope?
He granted me something that the prime minister and the deputy prime minister and all these other ministers of state in the U.K. never have. I had the benefit of a discussion with him, with no limits, no intermediaries, just him and I . . . and the interpreter, since I don’t speak Spanish and he’s not comfortable in English. It was a life-changing moment for me.
Many critics claim that Francis took too long to have the meeting, and that he hasn’t done enough to fight clerical sex abuse. What’s your view?
I know many people who are very, very angry with the church because of their experience. People have the right to be angry if they were wrongly treated. . . . But with Pope Francis, I did not have a hint of uncomfortableness. Some will be able to justify their critical position saying that he hasn’t done much, or hasn’t acted fast enough, but I believe him to be a sincere man. I believe him to be someone who wants to do this right.
The man I met today, I don’t think is a man who would let us down. He’s a different kind of pope. He’s certainly a pope of the people. Surely that’s what a priest is supposed to be, a man of the people. . . . I trust him, and I can only hope that he doesn’t betray that trust.
(The full text of the interview with Saunders is here.)
A conversation with Cardinal Pell
Speaking of interviews, the Globe had another one-on-one this week with Pell, the formidable Australian prelate who’s leading the pope’s financial house-cleaning effort. The following is a sampling of what he had to say.
Globe: In a big-picture sense, what are you trying to do?
Pell: Basically, the ambition is to be boringly successful, to get off the gossip pages. The aim is to become a model of good practice in financial administration. Along the way, we’re not going to generate any less revenue for the works of the church. We’ve also got to be careful that we preserve the Vatican’s patrimony, so we don’t put anything at risk with short-term moves.
Is there blowback from an Italian old guard?
There’s sadness and a bit of antagonism in some quarters, that’s for sure.
How do you deal with it?
By listening to their complaints and explaining what we’re trying to do. We also need to make sure there’s a significant percentage of Italians in the new leadership, because we’re very dependent on their cooperation.
Reports in the Italian media have charged Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, the new president of the Vatican bank, along with Joseph Zahra of Malta and Francesco Vermiglio of Italy, all members of the Council for the Economy, with forming a “Maltese lobby” seeking to profit from Vatican investments. How do you respond?
Those accusations are “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. They’re perfunctory, and the lack of accuracy is extraordinary. De Franssu and Zahra have no joint economic interests whatsoever, and they had never even met before serving on a study commission last year. They’re both busy men who have given enormous amounts of time gratuitously to the church. [The allegations] are very, very strange indeed.
We had a good look at the situation, and decided there’s just nothing in it.
Do de Franssu, Zahra, and Vermiglio have your full support?
They certainly have my full support.
Cynics say they’ve seen previous waves of supposed financial reform come and go, and nothing much ever changes. What makes this different?
Nobody in living memory has seen anything like this before. What’s so new are the structural reforms. We’ve now got different focuses of authority and checks and balances. We’re also injecting some of the top financial people from around the world into the leadership of these different agencies, and they won’t stay if the businesses aren’t run properly.
We’ve never seen such an injection of lay leadership into the senior ranks of the church as we’re seeing now with finances. That’s extremely healthy, because it’s an area in which we clerics don’t necessarily have any expertise. Going forward, you won’t be able to change the system back to what it was before simply by changing one person. A whole network of institutions is being set up, with more to come.
(The full text of the Pell interview is here.)
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook at facebook.com/ JohnLAllenJr.