The Vatican still does not grasp the gravity of the abuse crisis. That is the inescapable conclusion after the events of the past week.
Let’s review the latest developments:
■ A leaked report from the German Church said that between 1946 and 2014, 1,670 priests abused 3,677 minors.
■ A Dutch newspaper alleged that between 1945 and 2010, 20 out of 39 of the country’s bishops and cardinals covered up abuse. Four of them were themselves abusers.
■ As we went to press, we were still waiting to hear whether the Vatican will approve an inquiry into the case of disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the bishops’ conference president, had announced on August 16 that he would travel to Rome to ask for an investigation. He was finally granted a papal audience audience last week, but emerged with no news about an inquiry.
■ The Vatican announced a meeting of the world’s bishops’ conference presidents to discuss the crisis in five months’ time. The delay suggests a lack of urgency.
Why is Rome responding so sluggishly to a scandal that is causing deep pain in the pews from Santiago to Stuttgart? How can the Church’s central bureaucracy fail to understand how much is at stake?
Partly it is because the Vatican has learned, over the centuries, to sit out crises until action becomes unavoidable. At times that strategy served Rome. But it is disastrous when the threat to the Church is not from without but from within. Faced with a challenge without historical precedent, the Curia’s customary survival tactics are only aggravating the problem.
The Vatican does not currently possess the tools to deal with this worldwide scandal. Benedict XVI took the first necessary steps by dismissing almost 400 priests from the clerical state over a two-year period and ensuring that all cases were handled centrally. Pope Francis created a pontifical commission to advise him on the protection of minors. It recommended the creation of a Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of covering up abuse. But Vatican insiders quickly sidelined the commission, blocking its initiatives, starving it of funds and demoralising its members. They also persuaded Francis not to introduce the tribunal, convincing him, as he explained on his flight back from Dublin last month, that it “wasn’t practical”.
Critics argue that the Pope’s leadership style is hampering the fight against abuse. They claim that in seeking radical changes to the Church’s culture, he relies on questionable allies. They point out, for example, that he invited Cardinal Godfried Danneels to the family synod, even though the Belgian leader had been recorded discouraging an abuse victim from publicising his complaint. In his explosive letter, Archbishop Viganò said that he had warned the Pope about McCarrick, but that the US archbishop continued to advise the Pontiff on episcopal appointments.
Francis has not replied directly to these criticisms. The most effective response would be for him to demonstrate that he is willing to act without fear or favour, promptly punishing both friends and foes if they fail to protect children. He could also insist that the world’s bishops adopt “zero tolerance” abuse policies, and increase the powers of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Francis is sometimes described as the Pope of Mercy. History may now be calling him also to become the Pope of Justice.
The hidden revival
There is no way to ignore the Church’s many interlocking crises – and perhaps it would be unhealthy to try. But it would be even more unhealthy to focus only on the disasters. At this moment, there are many signs of hope in the Church – often not in the places which dominate the headlines, but half-hidden from the world.
Last week, we reported on one of those: the Catholic community of Finland, a Church of around 20,000 souls in a country of 5.5 million. A minuscule part of a small country – but they have just been celebrating the ordination of their ninth native priest since the Reformation, ordained by their first native bishop in centuries.
Or take the Catholics of Algeria: their numbers are around 100,000, about two per cent of the population. But this December, they will rejoice in the beatification of Bishop Pierre Claverie and his 18 companions, martyred in the mid-1990s. Seven of those martyrs, the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, were depicted in the film Of Gods and Men. It is appropriate that, as the Church reels from the revelations about prelates in high places, we should be reminded that God often works among the silent and forgotten.
Even in the larger, better-known Catholic countries, it may not be easy to find signs of growth: but look at the growing religious orders, the parishes where Eucharistic devotion is thriving, or initiatives like Rosary on the Coast, and those signs will be there.
Many Catholics are currently asking what it will take to purify the Church, and rightly so. But the revival is already underway, in a thousand obscure places.