Pope’s bishop defence shows he doesn’t get it


Michael McVeigh

January 27, 2018

Isaac GomesBy ignoring the voices of victims, Pope Francis is making it harder for the Catholic Church to deal with an issue that has become the defining one for our times.  It appears the Pope is toeing the dotted line set by his all-powerful Curia which believes in Omerta of the Mafia. Even though he has taken the Vatican by storm in his march for systemic reform, he is alone in his crusade against his own Church.  He is also old and seemingly helpless. The men and women he had brought in to do the clean-up of the system – financial and others – have been thrown out or eased out by his all-powerful Curia. The exit of Libero Milone, Vatican's first Auditor-General of impeccable professional repute (formerly Chairman and CEO of the global accounting firm Deloitte), Cardinal George Pell, Peter Saunders and then Marie Collins stepping down last year, are clear pointers to a spoke being put in the wheel of the Pope's reform initiatives. What is the Cure? A much younger Pope with a longer tenure to break the pockets of power-centre across the world, starting first with the Vatican? Too much money and power in the Vatican in the hands of a few? The Pope is trying his best to break the shackle, but it seems he is being strangulated, as it were. The Indian Church must be quite happy at the goings-on, without being under the Pope's pressure to bring in reforms on transparency and accountability, notwithstanding the much-vaunted September 2017 Synod in the Archdiocese of Calcutta. No wonder the April 25, 2016 kidnap of Bishop Gallela Prasad of Kadapa or the very recent land scam at Ernakulum Diocese is being swept under the carpet by the Church hierarchy. Isaac Gomes, Asso. Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.


Up until recently, Pope Francis has seemed to 'get it' in his response to the crisis of abuse. He has met with survivors in a number of countries, and has even written a preface to a book by a survivor. He launched the Pontifical Commission for Minors, and ensured victims had a voice on that commission.

But recent events have raised doubts on whether Francis really does 'get it'. The commission lost both of its survivor representatives, first Peter Saunders and then Marie Collins stepping down last year. The commission's term expired in December, with no word on what might be happening in the future. And, most recently, the Pope has tried to defend a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by accusing survivors of slander.

During his three-day visit to Chile, Francis faced protests from survivors and activists angered by his 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno. Barros has been accused of covering up the crimes of his friend Father Fernando Karadima, who was convicted of abuse by a Vatican tribunal in 2011. Barros has insisted that he neither knew nor suspected anything of the abuses.

The Vatican has defended Barros' appointment a number of times, but it was always going to be raised during the Pope's visit. Asked about the issue on his last day in Chile, the Pope responded, 'The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I'll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It's all calumny. Is that clear?'

The response angered victims and activists around the world. One of Karadima's victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, tweeted: 'As If I could have taken a selfie or photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all … (T)he pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.'

The comments have once again set abuse survivors and their supporters in opposition to the Catholic Church. Francis issued an apology for the 'slap in the face' to victims, but continued to defend Barros, calling for 'evidence' to be brought forward. In this case, it seems, the word of survivors is not evidence enough.

In Australia, the Pope's comments come at a particularly bad time, as the Church struggles to retain its credibility in the wake of the final report from the Royal Commission. Here, too, Catholic bishops have come under a cloud due to alleged involvement in historical abuse.

Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson faces trial for covering up child sexual abuse in Newcastle, while Cardinal George Pell faces sex abuse charges in Melbourne. Pell has taken a leave of absence from his Vatican roles to defend the charges against him. However, Wilson remains in his role in Adelaide.

Beyond the question of the guilt of Barros, Pell or Wilson, is the issue of how moral leadership can be exercised when a church leader comes under such a cloud of suspicion. It's one thing for the Church to offer support to those who are determined to defend themselves against allegations, and to allow the justice system to do its work. But there's a practical question for the Church as to how a person can be a credible public figure when the public no longer trusts what they have to say.

The Royal Commission has highlighted many failures of governance that contributed to the Church's horrific response to clerical sexual abuse. The Catholic Church needs leaders who 'get it'. Its leaders need to be able to engage with victims, to hear the impact that abuse has had on them, and be trusted to understand the betrayal, anger and grief that the issue has stirred up. But when its leaders are so compromised that survivors won't even speak with them that task is impossible.

In the wake of the Royal Commission, and similar crises in other parts of the world, the Church's urgent task is to rebuild trust. Open, transparent and accountable governance is a must — particularly when it comes to its response to abuse. Trust won't be rebuilt by an opaque Church hierarchy going about its usual opaque business. Trust won't be rebuilt by bunkering down and insisting on 'business as usual' while so many of its current leaders face questions over their complicity in the Church's failures.

By ignoring and sidelining the voices of victims and others angry about the Church's record on abuse, Francis is making it harder for the Catholic Church to deal with an issue that has become the defining one for our times.

No one would suggest that people who have been accused of abuse, or covering up for abusers, don't deserve to be able to answer the accusations against them, and to be able to continue in ministry if the allegations are proven to be false. The issue is whether they are the right people to lead the Church out of its current crisis, or whether the Church needs a new generation of leaders more able to re-establish trust.

We Catholics cannot choose who leads us, but we all choose who we follow. If the Church's leaders are absent, or cannot be trusted to provide leadership, then people will stop listening to them. Indeed, in many cases, they already have. That is an issue that Pope Francis cannot ignore.

Michael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics magazine and senior editor at Jesuit Communications.


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