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Church Looks to Pope Francis to ‘Shake Up,’ Offer Reform to Vatican Business

March 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Pope Francis officially assumes his title, he will face some established challenges and scandals. But the pontiff has already signaled a shift and charmed followers by preaching for greater humility. Jeffrey Brown talks with John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter and CNN about what messages the pope may hope to send.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to a look at the early messages from the new pope and the challenges ahead for him.

For that, Jeffrey Brown talked with John Allen a short time ago. Allen covers the Vatican for the National Catholic Reporter and is an analyst for CNN.

JEFFREY BROWN: John, welcome once again.

So, what signals and tone are people there picking up from the pope today and in recent days?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, Jeff, in effect, today was the end of a beginning. That is, from Wednesday, when Pope Francis stepped out on that balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, through his inaugural mass this morning, what he’s been doing in effect is to introduce himself to the world.

And as introductions go, I think most people here believe it’s been a bravura performance. He’s charmed people endlessly with this emphasis on a humbler, simpler style in the papacy closer to the people.

But, of course, beginning now, the focus shifts from style to substance, and the question becomes, how is this new tone going to be translated into the hard work of actually governing the church? And there, of course, the challenges are considerably more steep.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, give us a sense of what he’s up against. A lot of talk about the hierarchy, the bureaucracy of the Vatican, how the — the fixed nature of how things work. What is he up against?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, it’s quite clear to everyone that this pope was elected on a reform mandate. That is, the other 114 cardinals in the Sistine Chapel who elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis want someone who is going to shake up entrenched ways of doing business in the Vatican.

And when they talk about reform, they’re not talking about the secular model of reform, meaning changes to church teaching on matters such as abortion or birth control.

But, instead, they’re talking about changes in business management in the Vatican towards making the bureaucracy here more transparent, that is, both internally and externally, making it clearer who’s making decisions and why and also doing a better job communicating with the outside world, towards making it more accountable, that is, the idea that there ought to be penalties for poor performance, and towards making it efficient, the notion being is that this old concept of thinking in centuries may have cut it once upon a while. But, in a 21st century world, it simply doesn’t do it anymore.

That’s what these cardinals mean by reform. And they have embraced Pope Francis as the man who can deliver it. Whether it plays out in practice that way, of course, remains to be seen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there an expectation that on one key matter, the sexual abuse scandals, that he has to do something fairly quickly, whether it’s make some kind of gesture or take some kind of action?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think it’s very clear to anyone who’s been paying attention that the child sexual abuse scandals, which have been such a cancer for the Catholic Church for the better part of the last decade, have been the most significant blow to its moral authority in our lifetime.

And I think many cardinals — and, of course, well beyond the College of Cardinals, Catholics worldwide are hoping the new pope will take aggressive action. There have already been some reports that have raised questions about his record on the crisis in Argentina. There are cases from priests dating from 2007 and 2008 where allegedly then Cardinal Bergoglio didn’t react aggressively enough.

I suspect, however, what is going to loom much larger is not what’s in his past, but what’s in his present. That is, how is he going to respond as pope? And, certainly, if you look to critics of the church’s response of the sexual abuse crisis, what they would tell you is that although Benedict XVI did move the church forward in terms of embracing a zero tolerance policy for abuser priests, that wasn’t matched by an equal commitment to zero tolerance for the bishops who covered it up.

And they are looking for a clear signal from the new pope, Pope Francis, that there will be accountability for bishops who drop the ball, who don’t respond as they should to accusations of abuse against Catholic clergy. If he delivers that, then I suspect most people will be willing to say that this pope, on that issue at least, does indeed profile as a reformer.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned these looks at his performance in Argentina. Of course, the other thing that people have looked at since he was chosen was his role during the so-called dirty war, some daily stories looking back on the role of the church generally and he — him specifically.

How seriously is that being taken there at the Vatican? Can you tell?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think, on that issue, there is basic confidence that these accusations probably aren’t going to have any licks.

They were first surfaced actually eight years ago in the run-up to the conclave in 2005, when then Cardinal Bergoglio was also a serious candidate. A book came out in Argentina alleging that he had been complicit in the arrest and torture of two Jesuits. Remember that the new pope is a member of the Jesuits, and during the ’70s he was a provincial, meaning a regional superior, in Argentina for that religious order.

The charge was that he had been complicit in the arrest and torture of two members of his order. He firmly denied those charges. What has happened in the meantime is that one of these two Jesuits who now lives in Germany has come forward to say that, as far as he is concerned, the case is closed and he’s praying for the success of Francis’ papacy.

And a Nobel Peace Prize winner in Argentina known as a ferocious critic of the military junta has come forward to say that he believes the charges against the new pope basically are false and don’t have any merit.

So, I think the Vatican has basic confidence that at the end of the day, his record on these issues is going to survive scrutiny and that evaluations of him are not going to be based so much on his past as his present, that is, how he responds to the challenges facing him as pope.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, John, going back to what we saw today, this — you’re talking about the substance going forward. But what we saw today, the emphasis on humility, the less pomp, the way he was out in the square today, all that must have played awfully well there, being there for it, right?

JOHN ALLEN: Oh, absolutely. It played enormously well, Jeff, everywhere except with the Vatican security personnel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ah.

JOHN ALLEN: That’s probably the one constituency that hasn’t succumbed to the charm of this new pope, because they are scrambling to figure out how to keep up with a guy who quite clearly doesn’t want to be shackled by protocol and does not want to be put inside a bubble and separated from people.

And, frankly, I think there are some real concerns going forward if he continues to comport himself in this very accessible fashion whether or not they are going to be adequately able to guarantee his security.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, John Allen in Rome, thanks, as always. Thanks so much.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch more of Jeff’s interview online, as well as the full installation mass, which includes the pope’s homily translated into English.