News Analysis

Abuse crisis: No laughing matter

The wrong impression (CNS)

An ill-judged photo overshadows a meeting between the Pope and US bishops

Last week may have been one of the toughest of Francis’s pontificate. A mere list of the stories that broke or saw major developments –­ most of them very bad ­– would run well over the allotted column space. The following is a recap of some of the bigger news items from last week.

There was an announcement from the “C9” Council of Cardinal Advisers of a planned gathering of the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss “the protection of minors” and “vulnerable adults”. That announcement met with scepticism when the council made it on Wednesday last week, owing to several factors.

The C9 is the Pope’s hand-picked “kitchen cabinet” of most trusted advisers. It is supposed to be leading the way in reform, but has faced a series of problems. Several members are fighting allegations of corruption, and by the council’s own admission it may not be up to the job: last week they announced that they were asking the Pope to review the C9’s lineup, “taking into account the advanced age of some of the members”.

Even the announcement of a bishops’ meeting suggested that the Church’s hierarchy is yet to grasp fully either the nature or the gravity of the crisis. Scheduled for February 21-24, the gathering is nearly half a year off. It does take time to organise an international meeting, but the delay suggests the Vatican has not understood the impatience among the worldwide body of the faithful. The men invited to participate in the meeting – the heads of roughly 130 bishops’ conferences – are not, broadly speaking, a group at present possessed of much credibility as leaders. In fact, this latest chapter in the Church’s protracted global crisis is precisely one of episcopal leadership.

The protection of minors – or of “minors” and “vulnerable adults” – is a necessary and indispensable part of the solution. (It’s worth noting that some of the Church’s leading child safety experts have said the term “vulnerable adult” does not necessarily encompass everyone vulnerable to predatory power, but is limited to people, who, though legal and physical adults, nevertheless daily face significant challenges to their self-sufficiency.) Nevertheless, the abuse of minors is only one part of the crisis – though a uniquely ghastly one – that has engulfed the Church. The core of the problem is the rot in clerical culture.

The outcome of a high-level meeting last Thursday rather reinforced the grim and widely held impression that the bishops can’t be trusted to fix the problem, because – not to put too fine a point on it – the bishops are the problem.

The executive committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops under the president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, met Pope Francis at noon to discuss the cardinal’s proposal of an apostolic visitation to investigate the US hierarchy in the wake of the revelations about one of the US Church leadership’s most powerful members – Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.

The statement from Cardinal DiNardo following the meeting showed nothing in the way of practical conclusions, leaving the faithful – especially in the United States, but not only there – feeling more frustrated and put-upon than before. A major public relations blunder put salt on the wound: the Vatican’s media operation released two early photos from the meeting, one of which was a group shot, and the other of which was a candid snap showing the participants sharing a moment of laughter (pictured).

All week long, Pope Francis used his fervorini following the readings at Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae to articulate and reflect on the idea that it is the Devil who works to expose our sins – especially the sins of bishops.
Other news stories aggravated the already chafed sensibilities of the faithful.

Among the items in the news last week were confirmation of a papally ordered investigation into financial irregularity at the Sistine Chapel Choir, and the forced resignation of a 57-year-old bishop in Brazil, José Ronaldo Ribeiro, accused – along with a coterie of priests – of involvement in a siphoning scheme to the tune of more than £450,000.

News of the bishop’s resignation broke less than a full day before the Holy See press office announced the Pope’s acceptance of another from Bishop Michael Bransfield, and the opening of an investigation into allegations Bransfield engaged in sexual misconduct with at least one adult male. Bransfield was allowed to retire for reached limits of age.

Meanwhile, the embattled Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC – McCarrick’s successor – announced that he would travel to Rome to speak with the Holy Father about possibly accepting his resignation letter, which has been on the Pope’s desk for nearly three years. A leaked report out of Germany detailing thousands of abuse cases reached the international press.

There was more, but that is already more than enough.