Is the Pope’s fight against sexual abuse in the Church slipping away from him?

There has been an in-flight wedding, a preview on next year’s Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon and encounters with the peripheries of Church and society, but Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Chile and Peru has been marred by an apparent slacking off in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church. Some have even claimed that we are back at square one.


At the end of a meeting with survivors of sexual abuse in Iquique on 18 January, the Holy Father was asked about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop of Osorno, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, continues to be accused of having been aware of  the abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima in the 1980s. Survivor groups, as well as lay faithful in the Diocese of Osorno and other Chilean dioceses, have consistently called for Bishop Barros not to be appointed (or, now that he has been, to be removed). During the papal visit, protesters continued to make their voices heard. Following the private meeting with abuse survivors, in which the pope talked, prayed and wept with them, he commented on the Barros case, “The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see. There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny. Is that clear?”

This harsh comment has been almost universally condemned, not least by some of the pope’s closest collaborators in the fight against sexual abuse. Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted on 20 January ,referring to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse:

“In labelling [Juan Carlos Cruz] and his fellow Chilean survivors as guilty of slander the Pope has alligned himself with Cardinals Ezzati and Errazuriz, who, in an exchange of derogatory e-mails in 2015, conspired to block [Juan Carlos Cruz from] consideration for membership of the [Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors].”

42212019_401By claiming all accusations against Bishop Barros as slander or calumny, Pope Francis has indeed taking a major step back in how the Church relates to victims. Rather than listening to what they have to say, they are being silenced and ignored. Of course, this is what the Church has until recently been guilty of doing for decades, and what many parts of society still do to this day, when confronted with accusations of abuse. While it seems as yet unclear what role Bishop Barros may have played, the claims against Fr. Karadima at least are reliable. Karadima’s case was dismissed by the courts because the statute of limitations had expired, but the allegations were deemed nonetheless credible. The Vatican sentenced Fr. Karadima to a live of penance and prayer in 2011.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is headed by Cardinal Séan O’Malley. The archbishop of Boston also released comments about what the pope had said, saying:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Cardinal_OMalley1Very strong words condemning what Pope Francis said. The cardinal then continues his comments by underlining the Holy Father’s commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse:

“Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.”

There is an odd contrast here, between the pope’s apparent commitment to fighting abuse and the comment he made. That contrast is strengthened further by the continuing silence surrounding the new mandates of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These were up for renewal over the course of last year (some in March, others in December), but no word has yet come out. In essence, the Commission now exists in a sort of limbo.

With the creation of the Commission, Pope Francis was off to a good start in this matter. For the first time, survivors had a say in how the Church should respond. Of course, that has since changed. New members were added, but two survivors chose to leave the Commission. In March it’ll be four years since its establishment, and that is too soon for the Commission to be forgotten, ignored or otherwise becoming irrelevant. Its work is too important.

Hopefully, these two developments, the pope’s accusation of calumny and the silence surrounding the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors are simply hiccups, and the commitment of the Catholic Church to combat sexual abuse of minors under her responsibility will continue to grow.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] Reuters / A. Bianchi, [3] Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media


A new Curia – and two brothers united in Rome – as Pope Francis starts the mergers

In an unusual move for this time of year – albeit not unexpected – Pope Francis yesterday appointed the man to lead the first of his new ‘mega-dicasteries’, created from the suppressed Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for the Family. We already knew that it was forthcoming, as the current mandates for the pontifical councils were to end on 1 September. But we did not yet know who he would pick to get what could be the signature curial office of this stage in Pope Francis’ papacy off the ground.

Clerics-white-224x224-2The new Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life is unusual in several ways. Although it succeeds two pontifical councils, it is itself not one. Neither is it that other type of curial office, a congregation. It is officially branded a dicastery, which is pretty general: both a pontifical council and a congregation are dicasteries, which is simply a term to describe a department of the curia. It is, however, to be lead by a prefect instead of a president. Prefects normally lead congregations, while presidents head pontifical councils. And prefects and presidents are usually made archbishops, but the new head of the dicastery simply remains Bishop Kevin Joseph Farrell.

vincenzo-paglia-200x300In picking the now-emeritus Bishop of Dallas, Pope Francis made a choice from outside the Roman curia. There were several options in Rome, in the first place, the heads of the suppressed pontifical councils: Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko of Laity and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia of Family. But the former remains without a new appointment for now, while the latter moves to the third body that was expected to be merged into the new dicastery: Archbishop Paglia (at left) becomes the new president of the Pontifical Academy for Life as well as Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute “John Paul II” for the study of marriage and family. Both are duties not entirely unrelated to his previous work as president of the Pontifical Academy for the Family, although they are more academical.

Cardinal Rylko, at 71 still several years removed from retirement, remains in the waiting room for a new appointment. A return to his native Poland is an option: the archbishops of Bialystok, Kraków and Warmia are near or over retirement age. But would a career prelate who has spent the last 29 years in Rome be the right choice to lead a diocese back home? Pope Francis might think otherwise.

Irish-born Bishop Kevin Farrell, who reflects on his new appointment in his blog, joins his older brother in Rome. Bishop Brian Farrell’s has been the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity since 2002. Bishop Kevin, despite being appointed to lead a dicastery, has not been made an archbishop. This may have one of two reasons: either Pope Francis thinks that a bishop can do the work just as well as an archbishop can, or he has put Bishop Farrell on the list for a red hat, to be handed out in a consistory towards the end of this year. Prefects are usually made cardinals after all.

Bishop Farrell has led the Diocese of Dallas since 2007, and before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Washington for five years. In his final year there, he worked with now-Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who is one of the American cardinals with additional duties in Rome. In Washington he also succeeded then-Bishop Seán O’Malley as director of the archdiocese’s Hispanic center. Now-Cardinal O’Malley is, of course, another strong American voice in Rome, being one of the members of Pope Francis’ advisory Council of Cardinals. Whether either one had a hand in Bishop Farrell’s appointment remains a question.

In creating the new Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, Pope Francis underlines how these three areas of pastoral care and teaching are intertwined and valued. It seems clear that, according to the Holy Father, life must be nurtured within the family, and that this is a prime calling for the lay faithful.

Pope Francis’ letter – a call to action and cooperation

francisIt’s a fairly short, but also very clear, letter that Pope Francis released today, on the topic of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other Church workers. In essence, it is both a repeat exercise to emphasise the Church’s dedication of rooting out sexual abuse (of both minors and vulnerable adults), and a call to the world’s bishops and religious superiors, anyone in charge of the Church’s major groupings of faithful, to work with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. And that latter part is quite unique.

It may be assumed that the dicasteries of the Curia can expect the cooperation of the clergy and faithful of the Church, but we don’t usually get an express urging from the Pope to do so. It underlines how important the work of this Commission is. In a way, it is the next step in the fight: first, the abuse needed to be known and the local churches had to come to terms with the terrible things that happened in the past. Over time, they came to establish means and measures to bring perpetrators to justice and offer a listening ear and healing to the victims. And now those efforts have come together: the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will have the final word in what the local churches need to do.

Cardinal-Sean-OMalleyThe Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has seven members, a president and a secretary. The President is Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley (at right), the archbishop of Boston. Serving as secretary is Msgr. Robert Oliver, also a Bostonian. Both won much experience in dealing with the child abuse crisis as it broke in the United States, a prelude, it later turned out, to what would become known in other parts of the world. The members of the Commission come from various countries in all continents and include two survivors of sexual abuse: Marie Collins from Ireland and Peter Saunders from the United Kingdom. Other members are experts in psychology, social services, counselling, human trafficking, but also civil and canon law, religious life and theology.

My Dutch translation of Pope Francis’ letter is available here.

Outlining the path to the future – Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors gets to work

The Holy See’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had its first meeting from 1 to 3 May. They focussed primarily at making recommendation to Pope Francis about how the Commission should function. On behalf of the Commission, members Marie Collins, Fr. Hans Zollner and Cardinal Seán O’Malley made the following press statement. This is important to get an idea of how the Church will combat sexual abuse by clergy and other Church workers in the future [emphases in bold mine]:

“As we begin our service together, we wish to express our heartfelt solidarity with all victims/survivors of sexual abuse as children and vulnerable adults and to share that, from the very beginning of our work, we have adopted the principle that the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult are primary when any decision is made.
During our meetings, each of us have been able to share our thoughts, experiences, and our aspirations for this Pontifical Commission. Responding to our Holy Father’s requests, these discussions focused on the Commission’s nature and purpose and on expanding the membership to include people from other geographical areas and other areas of expertise. Our conversations included many proposals for ways in which the Commission might collaborate with experts from different areas related to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. We also met with some people from the Roman Curia regarding areas for future cooperation, including representatives from the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Gendarmerie.

As an advisory commission to the Holy Father, the fruit of our work will be communicated to Pope Francis. In time, we will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of “best practices” for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation, and responses to abuse. We have also shared with Pope Francis how important certain areas are to us in our future work. We see ensuring accountability in the Church as especially important, including developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes.

We will propose Statutes to the Holy Father to express more precisely the Commission’s nature, structure, activity, and the goals. It is clear, for example, that the Commission will not deal with individual cases of abuse, but we can make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice. In the Statutes, we plan to make specific proposals regarding the importance of emphasizing ways for raising the awareness of all people regarding the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families.

As the Catholic people make our parishes, schools, and institutions safe for all children, we join with people of good will in our endeavour to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from abuse. We request the prayers of all who wish to support the work of the Commission.”

The important things happen behind closed doors – the Council of Cardinals gets to work

Although much attention has been given to Pope Francis’s second interview in less than two weeks (more on that later), the real meat behind his proposed reforms is being discussed behind the closed doors of the private library in the papal apartments.

council of cardinals

The Council of Cardinals, from left to right: Francisco Cardinal Errázuriz Ossa, Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, Reinhard Cardinal Marx, Pope Francis, Oscar Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, Seán Cardinal O’Malley, George Cardinal Pell and Laurent Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya.

The Council of Cardinals (not the ‘G8’ – that’s a dumb name) will meet twice daily until Thursday. On Friday, they will accompany Pope Francis on his visit to Assisi. In the previous months, the cardinal members have been working generally solo, collecting information from the bishops, priests and faithful in their part of the world, although they have been in contact of course. During World Youth Day in Rio, some of them met up unofficially to speak about their mandate.

The meetings which started today will remain private and, as the coordinator of the group, Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, we shouldn’t be expecting any sweeping changes just yet. The council’s work will take a long time, which is also the reason why Pope Francis made it a permanent body. Membership is to the Pope’s  discretion, and we may expect a ninth member from one of the Eastern Churches soon.

In closing I recommend this interview with Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, conducted by Fr. Thomas Rosica of Salt & Light TV, in which the cardinal speaks about the Council of Cardinals and their work, among other things:

Photo credit: Catholic News Service photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

A hold on honorifics, and the priorities of Pope Francis

pope francisBack in April, so several sources claim, Pope Francis put at least a temporary stop to the granting of the honorary title of Monsignor or, more accurately, the titles of Honorary Prelate of His Holiness and Chaplain of His Holiness. Both titles grant the use of the title ‘monsignor’ to whom it is bestowed. It is a honorific, granted upon the request of a priest’s bishop or by papal initiative to priests who have done some extraordinary service that would merit this recognition. In practice, and in some areas, the titles have also een given almost automatically to priests who reached a certain age or number of years in one position or function.

Bishops also use the title of monsignor, but this comes with their consecration as bishops and is therefore not an honorary title.

It is said that Pope Francis wants to await the first meeting of the college of eight cardinals that he has appointed to advise him in reforming the Curia, before possibly restoring the practice. Or not, as the case may be. The cardinals Bertello, Errázuriz Ossa, Monsengwo Pasinya, Gracias, O’Malley, Marx, Pell and Rodríguez Maradiaga will meet next month.

Six months into this pontificate, it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis’ priorities do not lie with the granting of honours and titles. Of course, he has appointed bishops and archbishops, but that is quite different, flowing from the need of a diocese for a shepherd. What this means for Francis’ first consistory seems clear: don’t hold your breath. While there are a number of clear candidates to be created cardinal – among them the new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, to name but one – they will be kept waiting a while longer, I would think.

WuerlAnd why not, after all? With 111 electors there is no shortage of cardinals who can participate in a conclave, and we have no reason to assume one is forthcoming (then again, this time last year we thought much the same…). Metropolitan archbishops can do their jobs just as well without being cardinals, and the same would go for prefects and presidents of the offices of the Curia. However, the College of Cardinals can be a valuable aid in running the Church, and Pope Francis will very likely be using it as such. In fact, with the title of cardinals comes the responsibility to function as such. The Pope can call consistories to assemble the entire college to deliberate, advise and decide about any given topic. And before long, I would think, Pope Francis may want to have the Secretary of State, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, to name three Curial officials who are not yet cardinals, in that College.

Francis’ Group of Eight

francis o'malleyIt’s not really a surprise, as Pope Francis’ intention to restructure the Roman Curia had been discussed and speculated about since his election – in fact, it was a major topic  during the pre-conclave General Congregations. Never having been a curial cardinal himself, Pope Francis has decided to appoint a group of eight cardinals to help him in this process: the first concrete step towards a possible future restructuring. But what is noticeable is that only one of the members of this group comes from the Curia. It seems that a multinational group of non-curial prelates will have a major say about the future of the Curia.

Oscar Andrés Cardinal Maradiaga Rodríguez, archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras), will act as coordinator of the group, and Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano (Italy) will be secretary. The remaining six members are:

  • Giuseppe Cardinal Bertello, President of the Governatorate of Vatican City State
  • Francisco Javier Cardinal Errazuriz Ossa, Archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile (Chile)
  • Oswald Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay (India)
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, Archbishop of München und Freising (Germany)
  • Laurent Cardinal Monswengo Pasinya, Archbishop of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
  • Sean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston (United States)
  • George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney (Australia)

This seems to be an answer to the desire of several cardinals, among them Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, that a group of cardinals be established to assist the Pope in the management of the Church.  The difference here though, is that the current group of eight will only assist the Pope in one very specific matter not unlike the group of three that Pope Benedict XVI tasked with investigating the VatiLeaks case last year.

Aside from the general task of advising the Pope in the government of the Church, the Group of 8 will study a lan for revising Pastor Bonus, the Apostolic Constitution by which Blessed Pope John Paul II launched a number of revisions to the Curia in 1998. The general expectation and hope seems to be that certain offices will be merged or even suppressed to achieve a more effective Curia without the excessive careerism that many have noted has been preventing a smooth running of the Curial duties.

The Group of 8 will first meet in October, although Pope Francis is in contact with all of them (and with the Holy Father we may assume that that is certainly true – after all, he is not averse to picking up the phone to whoever he needs to speak to).

Photo credit: CNS