Last week Pope Francis met the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for the first time since its foundation in 2014 and assured them that he was committed to “zero tolerance” of clerical abuse. This was heartening, because the past three years have shown just how difficult it is to combat paedophilia within an international community of more than a billion people.
For the past three years, the commission has toiled on the Vatican’s margins: underfunded, demoralised and frequently obstructed. Members, led by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, have shown great fortitude, even as they have lost both Peter Saunders and Marie Collins, the group’s sole abuse survivors.
One of the problems has been an internal Vatican struggle over which department should oversee abuse cases. In his speech, the Pope acknowledged a proposal to strip the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of responsibility. The doctrinal congregation has handled such cases expertly, if not swiftly, since Cardinal Ratzinger intervened in the abuse crisis in 2001. Thankfully, Pope Francis said he had rejected the plan and the CDF would continue to oversee the Church’s response.
Francis also noted that the CDF section dealing with abuse is understaffed, meaning that cases are processed at a glacial rate. It is disturbing that this problem, known for years, has not been resolved. There must be experts who would willingly step in to tackle the backlog. And if money is the problem, there are surely wealthy Catholics who would pay for the clear-up. As long as cases are processed at a scandalously slow pace, assurances that the crisis is under control sound empty.
For the Vatican’s “zero tolerance” policy to be truly effective two things need to happen: demanding child protection measures must be applied consistently across the Catholic world; and Church leaders who fail to protect children ought to be punished.
The Vatican should require every bishops’ conference in the world to apply measures as strong as those in force in Britain and the United States. Yes, there are problems with introducing universal norms, especially where the Church is poor or persecuted, but let’s address these complexities later.
In theory, the Church can already root out leaders who mishandle abuse cases, thanks to Pope Francis’s motu proprio Come una Madre Amorevole (“As a Loving Mother”). But, as Marie Collins pointed out last week, it is not clear if the Vatican is actually applying the text. “All the policies in the world are worthless,” she said, “unless there is some consequence for ignoring them.” She is quite right.
In his address, Pope Francis signalled clearly that he is on the side of the victims and not of vested interests. We must support him in prayer as he turns words into deeds: insisting on strong global norms, removing negligent bishops and defending his abuse commission against every attempt to sideline it.
‘Correcting’ the Pope
More than 60 Catholic scholars and priests have issued a “filial correction” addressed to Pope Francis, in which they air their concern about the way some of his pronouncements, as they see it, may lead some Catholics into error. This is an unprecedented step in modern times and therefore deserves serious consideration.
The Code of Canon Law makes it clear that Christ’s faithful “have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church” (Canon 213:3). So, if a group of laity are concerned at the direction taken by the Pope, then they are right to let him know this. Moreover, Pope Francis himself asked for parrhesia, or bold speaking, at the time of the family synod.
The truth is that we do need open and healthy debate in the Church – not on unchanging doctrine, of course, but on other matters. In this case, the priests and scholars seem to be concerned with the way doctrine is presented, and in particular the way various bishops’ conferences have issued divergent, indeed contradictory, pastoral directives.
But there are many other fields in which Catholics should make their concerns known. One such is the continuing and immensely damaging saga of the Vatican’s finances. Another might well be the ever-delayed wholesale reform of the Roman Curia.
Just recently, the former Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy, seemed to “correct” the Pope’s teaching on euthanasia. That sort of correction – truly a usurpation of the office of pontiff – was the type that once sounded from the lips of Martin Luther. But other requests for clarification addressed to Rome are surely in keeping with the millennial tradition of the Church.
When in doubt, the sheep look to Peter to be fed with nourishing food. How, though, will Peter respond? It is most unlikely that any reaction will be forthcoming; but the fact remains, in a time of confusion, Catholics long for clarity.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund