News Analysis

Vatican: Chile – the Pope’s big chance

The clean-up begins (CNS)

A mass resignation could mark a new era in child protection

The clerical abuse crisis is global. Its causes are complex and its roots are deep. The situation in Chile represents in microcosm the problems facing the whole Church – problems that are not going to be solved in the short term, and will not go away on their own.

Much of the commentary on the crisis – especially in its latest developments, with regard to the unprecedented resignation en masse of the entire Chilean episcopate – has focused on what it all means, and on what messages are being sent to and from various quarters. In short: the commentary has been long on interpretation, and short on figuring out what is going on.

Pope Francis has been praised for an apparent return to active reformer-form after several grievous and essentially reactionary missteps. That may not really be the case, though (and whether he ever deserved the active reformer label in the first place is debatable). In particular, he has been hailed for decisiveness and political savvy in connection with the resignations.

The Chilean bishops, meanwhile, have faced criticism essentially for having saddled the Pope with what is, in the main, a problem of their making, not his ­– whatever his failures of governance are or prove to have been. At this point, though, one thing is certain: that Pope Francis now owns the crisis entirely, not only in its Chilean theatre, but also worldwide.

It is fair to assume that the motivations of the bishops of Chile for agreeing to submit their resignations – we still do not know the precise circumstances under which they were submitted – are varied and complex: some of the bishops will have desired to avoid investigation and prosecution. Others will have wanted to demonstrate their willingness not only to lead, but to be led. Still others will have gone along with the crowd.

The Pope is the supreme governor of the Universal Church – and he governs absolutely: he is the legislator, the executor, and the judge. This has its advantages, but also its downsides, especially when political problems – or rather, measures potentially attractive as remedies to those problems – run counter to competing demands for justice. (I am using the term “political” at once in its colloquial sense and in its deeper, etymological sense of “pertaining to the good of the commonwealth” – in this case the City of God in pilgrimage on Earth, over which Christ is Lord and Francis his vicar.)

Pope Francis owes justice to the victims of clerical abuse. As the abuse survivor and victim advocate Marie Collins, formerly of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, put it to the Catholic Herald: “Accepting resignations from guilty bishops and reorganising the Church in Chile is a very positive outcome for the survivors and people in that country. However, action is needed to ensure that what has happened in the Chilean Church will never be allowed to happen again.”

Collins added: “Simply accepting the resignation of certain guilty bishops is not enough. We have seen this in other countries in the past and it has done nothing to bring wider change. If bishops have their resignation accepted because they are guilty of protecting an abuser or hurting a victim, they should be facing a transparent disciplinary process. Why are they not?”

Pope Francis, in short, also owes justice to the bishops – of Chile and of other places – and cannot provide it to anyone by painting with a broad brush. Bishops who are guilty of negligence do not deserve to be punished as though they were guilty of cover-up. Bishops who are guilty of collusion, intimidation, false witness, and a host of other similar and related offences deserve more severe punishment than privation of office. Bishops who are innocent deserve to emerge from this sordid mess with their good names (if not their reputations for leadership) intact.

Judicial processes are the ordinary way to obtain the kind of justice for which the crisis in Chile calls, but the Vatican is at present ill-equipped to administer that sort of justice – especially on a large scale – and confidence in the Vatican’s administration of criminal justice is as low as it has been in living memory.

On that count, transparency is indeed the key, and Pope Francis can help with that: for starters, by sharing the dossier (albeit a redacted version to protect those in need of protection) that Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta assembled on the evidence-gathering mission that was the catalyst for the emergency gathering of Chile’s bishops in the Vatican. He might also officially release the text of the letter he delivered to the Chilean bishops; and while we’re on the subject of letters, he might tell us what happened to the one Juan Carlos Cruz wrote to him in 2015.

Pope Francis has an opportunity – one chance – to be a part of the solution to this tangled, thorny mess of a situation. While the dust settles on the Chilean bishops’ resignations, he can start making headway on the cleaning project of which his own house is in need.

If he would be part of the solution, he must lead by example: even and especially if it hurts to do so.