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What the convictions of two cardinals tell us about the abuse crisis

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin flanked by lawyers (Getty)

The convictions of Pell and Barbarin show the gravity and scope of the crisis

Two senior churchmen have been convicted of criminal wrongdoing in secular jurisdictions, in connection with the ongoing crisis of clerical sexual abuse and coverup. Cardinal George Pell of Australia has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two altar servers – both boys – in the Melbourne cathedral sacristy in the mid-1990s, when he was archbishop there. Cardinal Pell is awaiting his sentence, and is appealing his conviction.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, has been found guilty of failure to report abuse committed by one of his priests — Fr. Bernard Preynat, an accused serial abuser who has admitted to molesting boys — and given a six months’ suspended sentence. Cardinal Barbarin has announced his intention to resign his see and appeal the verdict against him.

The cases are in some respects almost photo-negatives of each other. Their contrast sets in relief two significant effects of the crisis broadly facing the worldwide Church. Taken together, the cases are also leading indicia of the gravity and scope of the crisis.

In Cardinal Pell’s case, there are grave doubts regarding his guilt and serious concerns regarding the integrity of the proceedings against him. A first attempt at trial ended in a hung jury — which reportedly came back deadlocked at 10-2 in favour of acquittal — and the proceedings were conducted under a gag order supposedly in place to guarantee fairness in a climate of hostility to the accused.

In Cardinal Barbarin’s case, the accused had long since admitted to handling the Preynat matter inadequately. “This is because everything that was advocated, including by Pope Francis, had been for the present and the future,” Cardinal Barbarin told Le Monde in a 2017 exclusive. “Twice I suspended priests and went to court when I learned of recent events — in 2006 and 2014.” The Preynat business, however, was fifteen or twenty years old. “I knocked a little at every door,” Barbarin went on to say, “to ask for advice: What do we do for old incidents?”

“Nobody gave me a satisfactory answer,” Cardinal Barbarin told Le Monde. “I realize today that my response at that time was not up to the challenge.” Nevertheless, even the prosecution asked the bench for acquittal in the case, saying the procurator’s office had no evidence of criminal intent.

In January pleadings, Deputy Prosecutor Charlotte Trabut told the court, “Not to be interested in the intentional element is to adopt a catch-all conception of [criminal] offense.” She also told the court, “The intentional element cannot be characterized only by an omission (failure to denounce the case to justice), coupled with knowledge [of aggression]: That is not enough,” Trabut argued — in line with her office’s 2016 decision to drop the criminal case.

Victims then used a direct recourse provision in French law to bring the case to trial.  

Nevertheless, a judge condemned Barbarin, even though the French prosecutor said there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. In Australia, a jury found its way to a guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell, though there were serious concerns about both the facts of the case and the integrity of the trial process.

People are angry, and Church leadership are on the defensive.

The coordinator of the C6 Council of Cardinal Advisers, Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, recently told the Spanish-language portal Religión Digital, “The Holy Father did not accept [Pell’s] resignation because he supposed it would make it look like he thought those who accused him were right. (El Santo Padre no le aceptaba la renuncia porque suponía darle la razón a los que lo acusaban.)”

That could be an heroically principled position, but it is one the Pope’s record of leadership has made difficult for too many people — among them victims, faithful, and members of the broad public — to see as anything other than another instance in which the Pope believes the word of the accused cleric over that of the cleric’s accusers.

What in Cardinal Pell’s case may be reasonable and even courageous, is in Cardinal Barbarin’s case less obviously so. Pell protests innocence, and has a case, the merits of which even voices powerfully antipathetic to the Church and to His Eminence recognise. Barbarin has admitted his failure, even though he denies criminal wrongdoing.

Pope Francis introduced new legislation in 2016, which gave more paper latitude for the removal of bishops for mere negligence. The Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Come una madre amorevole — “As a loving mother” — gave the Pope and competent Vatican congregations the wherewithal to sidestep cumbersome judicial processes and remove bishops for failure to exercise duty to care even and especially when their failures have not come to criminal wrongdoing.

The Church’s leading expert on the legal side of child protection, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a principal organiser of the recent high-level meeting on child protection at the Vatican — has said the duty to care is paramount and non-negotiable.

At the press briefing on Day 1 of the recent meeting, Archbishop Scicluna said, “[T]he Pope is not concerned as much about malice and culpable negligence — that’s also included — but is more concerned about the objective inability, incapacity to deliver on such important topics, including the safety of kids.” He went on to say, “[Come una madre] is actually more about the removal of ineffective leadership rather than punishing leadership that is not up to standard.”

If that is so, then why was Cardinal Barbarin allowed to remain in his see even after his admission?

The inability of Church leadership even to attempt anything like the action needed to get a real handle on the burgeoning crisis, has utterly squandered the trust of the faithful. As the cases of Cardinals Pell and Barbarin amply illustrate, Church leadership’s unwillingness to outface the crisis is also contributing directly to the creation and exacerbation of a climate in which public confidence in the ability of civil jurisdictions to ensure the course of justice is threatened and possibly compromised.

While people everywhere hope and pray that justice be done in France and Australia — and everywhere else — the fact of the matter is that continued failure on the part of Church leadership to address the crisis cannot fail to fuel a kind of anger that must be permanently destructive of the institutional Church, but disastrously corrosive to rule of law and civil society.

On Thursday, Pope Francis told the clergy of Rome, “The unbearable pain and suffering that the wave of scandals — of which the whole world’s newspapers are now full – causes in us and in the whole ecclesial body.”

“Still,” he said, “do not be discouraged! The Lord is purifying his Bride and is converting us all to himself.” He went on to say, “It is saving us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances. He is blowing his Spirit to restore beauty to his Bride, surprised in flagrant adultery.”

The eyes of faith will undoubtedly see all that as true, even as the ears of the faithful will hear all that, and ask why he does not act as though he believes it.

If, as Pope Francis also said of the present chastisement, “It is saving us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances,” then why does he not tell us how Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta — his old acquaintance from Argentina, accused of sexual misconduct and shady real-estate and financial dealings, of which Pope Francis was apparently aware — came out of his former see of Óran and into a tailor-made billet in a powerful dicastery of the Roman Curia responsible for the Vatican’s real estate and financial holdings?

Pope Francis went on to say in his remarks to the priests of his diocese, “He is blowing his Spirit to restore beauty to his Bride, surprised in flagrant adultery.” That is eloquence. Matched against Pope Francis’s conduct, the eloquence loses the force of conviction, and acquires an artful sheen.

Pope Francis could help the Spirit do its work if he would open, rather than close the window, and draw, rather than pull the curtains. The Spirit will work, even if the windows must be out; even if the palace must be blown down.