Pope Francis: A Revised Report Card

At my university, and I am sure others, every once in a while a piece of work which has already been marked is handed to someone else to be reassessed. It is a kind of quality checking.  

A week or so ago I wrote a report card for Pope Francis. I concluded with “Could do better, much better”. Now, exactly a year after his election, and with some new evidence, I am resubmitting his record to myself for reassessment.

On March 5, Francis gave an interview to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. Asked about the sexual abuse of children, Francis had this to say;

"I want to say two things. The cases of abuses are terrible because they leave extremely deep wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and he cleared a path. The Church has done so much on this path. Perhaps more than anyone. The statistics on the phenomenon of the violence against children are shocking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of abuses take place in the family environment and around it. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And, the Church is the only one to be attacked."

Hope against hope, I had been waiting for Francis to do or say something genuinely reforming about the sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church. With these nine short sentences my hopes have been dashed and I have to accept that like most in the Catholic hierarchy, Pope Francis just does not get it!

He praises Benedict XVI for his courage in the matter of child abuse. It is true that Benedict did make some reforms late in his papacy, but before he became Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith and Dean of the College of Cardinals, during which time there were multiple incidents of priests being moved from parish to parish, country to country to cover up their abuses. Ratzinger intervened to prevent the defrocking of priests who were notorious serial abusers, legally convicted of crimes. It was also during this time that steps were taken to protect Church funds from damages claims by survivors. In 2007, for example, the Vatican approved a request from Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, to move $57 million into a cemetery fund. “I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability,” he said. Cardinal Ratzinger approved this move, and Timothy Dolan has been promoted to be Cardinal in New York. This is not courage. It is cowardly protectionism of self-interest.

Francis is right that the great majority of abuses take place in the family environment, but this is not news, and it is also not the point.  When Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have been forced recently by prosecutors or survivors’ lawyers to disclose fully the complaints they have received about child abuse, around 10% of active priests are revealed to have attracted complaints – a shocking number.  It is not surprising that the Church should attract people so confused and alarmed about their own sexuality that they hope a vow of celibacy will solve all their problems – some of whom turn out to be child abusers.  Research shows that many abusers pick professions where they have access to and control over the young – again, making the priesthood attractive.  These are problems specifically related to the nature of priesthood, which the Church needs to address.

And abuse by Catholic priests is particularly heinous because the Catholic Church teaches its adherents that the sacrament of ordination possesses the priest of “the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself”.  (Note 1581 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994). Combine this with the Catholic Church’s own teachings about sexuality – that outside of marriage sexual activity of any kind, in thought word or deed, is mortally sinful – and it becomes obvious that sexual abuse by a Catholic priest is particularly disturbing and harmful to the psyche of the victim.

It is astonishing to me that Francis, a man who has taught both theology and philosophy at university level, is unable to understand this.

He is right in that all sexual abuse is horrifying, but I wonder why he cannot see the extra layer of horror felt by a young Catholic child if the abuser is a priest. The church has encouraged the child to think that the priest can do no wrong -- so childlike reasoning concludes that these obviously wrong activities must be the child’s own fault. Not only that, but by his actions the priest has condemned the child in her or his own mind to eternal damnation, for he has effectively blocked off access to the only route to salvation, namely confession and absolution. How could it be expected that a child would be able to confess to her or his parish priest the acts which have been committed with the very man behind the screen, or to someone who almost certainly knows the abuser and will naturally be his ally?

When a Catholic child has been abused by a Catholic priest he or she is left to deal not only with the physical and emotional wounds that every abuse victim faces but also with a sense that they have been abused and abandoned by God himself. If one believes Catholic theology and doctrine it is hard to imagine a worse condition. Many victims have described their experience in these circumstances as “soul murder”.

So Pope Francis:  to be sure, fathers, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, cousins, neighbours, even mothers sometimes, do commit acts of sexual abuse on children in their care and those are terrible crimes. It is an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust and it leads to problems like sexual dysfunction, depression, low self-esteem, the inability to form relationships, shame and guilt which often last a lifetime. Sexual abuse by Catholic priests does all this too but it is also soul murder as it leaves its victims without hope both in this world and the next.

For failing to recognise this, for your inaction in addressing this most dire of social and theological issues in the first year of your papacy, and for your cavalier dismissal of its seriousness in your interview with Corriere della Sera, I have to change my grade for your first year in office to “FF” for “FAIL”.