News Analysis

The Pope’s latest picks face a near-impossible task

In struggling dioceses, the Pope is choosing bishops who are known quantities (CNS)

Pope Francis has made several appointments over the past few weeks, some of them of a very high profile. One is the nomination for Santiago de Chile – where Bishop Celestino Aós Braco OFM Cap is apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum sanctae sedis, in place of the embattled Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati. The second is for Washington, DC, where Archbishop Wilton Gregory succeeds Cardinal Donald Wuerl as head of the US capital archdiocese.

If the situation in DC is fairly – if euphemistically – described as fraught, the one in Santiago is unequivocally an unholy mess. In both cases Pope Francis decided on what, according to the old rules and customs, we may characterise as a safe play. In the case of DC, the safety is in the person. In Santiago, the safety is in the kind of appointment.

Archbishop Gregory will be 72 in December. He is a known quantity, an old hand and a team player. In the main, he is considered sensitive to victims and conscious of the need for structural reform. He found himself in the presidency of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, when the crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the US theatre became – for the first time in the 21st century – a major international media scandal.

It was an uncomfortable position for him – fairly new in the job, and without much of the real power that comes from being a conference president in other places – but he made no bones about the gravity of the situation, whether in his dealings with Rome or in speaking with his fellow bishops in the US conference. He also used his place to push for a more pastoral approach to victims and for real accountability, at least as far as abusive priests were concerned. All that was of a piece with his general record of leadership in Belleville, Illinois, and Atlanta.

The Archdiocese of Washington is in turmoil. One archbishop emeritus – Ted McCarrick – has been expelled from the clerical state after conviction on abuse charges. His successor, Cardinal Wuerl, resigned last year after losing the confidence of clergy and faithful alike as a result of his record of perceived failures in leadership. Whether Archbishop Gregory will be able to restore a measure of trust, or at least stop the haemorrhaging of credibility, remains to be seen.

When it comes to Chile’s capital see of Santiago, the two most recent archbishops emeritus, Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz and Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, are under criminal investigation for their respective roles in covering up – hence enabling – abuse. Both deny they broke the law. Cardinal Ezzati has yet to appear before investigators. He has insisted that prosecutors agree not to charge him.

Meanwhile, the institutional Church in Chile is in complete shambles. It is almost impossible to find a priest otherwise suitable as a candidate for episcopacy who is not somehow tainted by the crisis and the scandal. That makes it difficult to appoint bishops to fill vacant sees, and goes some way toward explaining why Pope Francis has accepted so few of the Chilean bishops’ resignations.

In May last year, the Catholic Herald explained the situation in Chile as a “terrible dilemma” for Pope Francis. It now seems to have gone from merely terrible to practically impossible.

The appointment of Bishop Celestino Aós Braco as apostolic administrator appears to be an acknowledgment of the difficulties on the ground. His job is to clean house, and he answers to Rome. He will never be the Archbishop of Santiago. At 74, his time is short. On the one hand, this is incentive to work quickly. On the other, it means the entrenched interests may try to go to ground and wait him out. While whatever is to happen, happens, the faithful suffer.

In both Santiago and DC, Pope Francis has opted for a “safe pair of hands”. Neither is a long-term appointment. Each brings some baggage. Aós Braco, for example, has faced criticism for his handling of cases when he was promoter of justice in Valparaiso. Gregory has taken heat for his handling of a records dispute when he was Bishop of Belleville in the early 2000s. On the other hand, both have some caché as straight shooters.

In all this, one is reminded of the sequence in the classic gangster film, The Untouchables, in which Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone (a hard-bitten Chicago beat cop) takes Kevin Kostner’s Elliot Ness to the police academy to recruit men for his gang-busting squad, charged with bringing Al Capone to justice. “If you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple,” Malone quips, “don’t go to the barrel: get it off the tree.”

Especially in the absence of radical structural reform, the question whether the fruit on the branches will mature in time – or be left to rot on the branch – seems to be the long-term issue for Pope Francis (and his successor). This certainly goes for Santiago and Washington DC. It is more broadly applicable.