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Opinion | Margery Eagan

Catholics’ faith in Francis is misplaced

Pope Francis spoke Jan. 22 after his visit to Chile and Peru.Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

HERE’S A SAFE BET: Even if a day arrives when the Catholic Church is pure, none of us will live to see it. So maybe Catholics should stop looking for saints among its leaders.

On Jan. 18, Francis took a sledgehammer to millions who’d misplaced saintly hope in him. He went to Chile and called priestly sex abuse survivors liars.

What happened?

This was the Francis who ditched the papal apartment, rode around in a tiny Fiat, kissed prisoners’ feet, focused on the poor, refugees, the planet, forgiveness, mercy — not the typical Catholic focus on anything to do with sex.


Wowed, we talked of “The Francis Effect.” Jaded Catholics returned to Mass, risking uninspired preaching because, well, Francis inspired. Plus, to paraphrase Hebrews, there is ever that yearning to find proof of things unseen.

There had long been signs that Francis didn’t really “get” the sex abuse mess. But nothing confirmed it like Chile, when he said he needed proof that Bishop Juan Barros had covered up crimes. Otherwise, multiple survivors’ claims were “calumny.”

For Americans, the timing was ghastly: in the midst of the #MeToo moment and of 156 gymnasts detailing in court gross abuse by a trusted physician. At least one was only six when her horror began. So was the little boy whom priest Paul Shanley, protected by Cardinal Bernard Law, repeatedly plucked from Sunday school to take to a bathroom and then rape.

So we are back to the dark days, asking, again, how to remain a Catholic?

Yet here’s what may seem odd: the many Catholics, including those with every reason to ditch it all, who have kept their faith and ditched the institutional church instead.

Take Juan Carlos Cruz, one of the men verbally attacked by Francis. He was a 16-year-old seminarian when first sexually assaulted by a priest in the ’80s. Cruz and two other survivors say Barros, the bishop Francis defends, witnessed this. Cruz did leave the church, but not for long. He told me in a phone interview that Catholicism has been “incredibly powerful in my life” and that a bunch of criminals “were not going to take it away from me.”


Take Anne Barrett Doyle and Terry McKiernan, Catholics despite working full time running, a website chronicling an actual lack of bishop accountability, plus decades of sickening abuse.

Just before the pope arrived in Chile, Doyle held a press conference there to release new data on accused priests and bishops and support survivors like Cruz. McKiernan believes Doyle’s extensive media coverage helped push Francis over the edge.

“The only way I have found to be a good Catholic now is in a state of protest,” said Doyle, who protested Law outside Holy Cross Cathedral for years. “I believe the church will be reformed not under the papacy but through subpoenas and criminal proceedings.”

McKiernan, like Cruz and Doyle, says Catholics “go to Mass all the time without faith in the authority structure. The church isn’t theirs,” he said. “It’s ours.”

Said a frank and clear-eyed priest who requested anonymity, as priests usually do, “If someone came to me and said, ‘I am crushed by this,’ I’d tell them the head of the church is not the pope, it’s Jesus Christ.” And that church leaders, like family, country, or the president, will let you down. And that it’s often “people in the pews, not priests or bishops” who most courageously live their faith.


In fact, at a packed Mass at her hometown parish, a courageous Doyle, then only 14, rose from one of those pews to confront her priest. He’d just praised the archdiocese for refusing to baptize the baby of a couple who were abortion-rights proponents. Doyle told him he was wrong.

Like many of us, Doyle has longed for heroes and saints in her life. The saintly Francis, she said, turned out to be a “fairy tale.” But she’s found what she sought by hearing survivors speak truth to an awesome power. Through them, she said, “I have been in touch with heroes. I have been in touch with saints.”

Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”