What Pope Francis Has Done Differently in Tackling the Sexual Abuse Scandal

Pope Francis I arrives at the Cathedral of Campobasso Pope Francis I in Campobasso, Italy on 5 July, 2014.

Pope Francis I arrives at the Cathedral of Campobasso Pope Francis I in Campobasso, Italy on 5 July, 2014. (Rex Features via AP Images)

July 8, 2014

Yesterday, Pope Francis met for the first time in his papacy with victims who suffered childhood sexual abuse at the hands of clergy members. In a sermon at a private mass for the victims, the pope used “some of his most emotional language yet,” speaking “like a sinner in confession,” wrote Jason Berry, religion writer at GlobalPost and author of Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.

FRONTLINE spoke with Berry this afternoon to find out more about Francis’s meeting with the victims, what his record in Argentina suggests about his current intentions, and the prospects for his efforts to reform the Vatican.

Berry coproduced Secrets of the Vatican, FRONTLINE’s inside look at the recent scandals that have rocked the church. The film rebroadcasts tonight on many PBS stations (check local listings).

What was different about what Pope Francis did yesterday?

First, Pope Francis spent a great deal of time, according to the press reports, with each of the individuals. The young woman who spoke to the Irish newspapers said he was unhurried, he didn’t look at his watch, and sat with her at length and listened to her. This was different from the approach that Pope Benedict took, with shorter meetings, and not as involved in gathering the emotional weight of each one of their accounts. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the former pope, but Francis decided to go more than the extra mile in spending time with them.

The second point is, his language struck me as quite a reflection of guilt on his part on behalf of the hierarchy of the church. He begged for forgiveness rather like a sinner going to confession. What’s significant there is that when someone in his position establishes a terrain of language, a territorial vocabulary, for discussing something that’s as aching and reaching as this scandal that has been building for years, it creates a kind of arena for ongoing exchanges.

Even though some of the survivors’ groups are attacking him, he’s actually done them a favor by speaking as bluntly as he did. The challenge for the pope and for the Vatican now is how they create the structural changes to meet the promise of the rhetoric.

What does Pope Francis’ record as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina suggest about his current intentions?

His record in Argentina on this issue was certainly not good. I’ve read several media accounts, and there’s no record that prior to yesterday he had ever met with an abuse victim. He supported a special report that was written in defense of the priest who had been convicted — Julio Cesar Grassi. At least from what we know, Francis was not as egregious as say Cardinal [Bernard] Law in Boston or [Cardinal Roger] Mahony [former archbishop of Los Angeles].

Francis was certainly not a reformer on this issue before he became pope, and he did not position himself as a listener, a healer or someone on the side of the abused. What intrigues me about him as a man is that he’s a work in progress — he shows a great capacity to change. I think Francis is on a journey, and he’s using language to stake out territory for reform. The real question is how much of a change agent will he prove to be?

Under Francis’ leadership the Vatican has taken some steps towards reform including criminalizing sexual abuse and forming an advisory board. Most recently, the Vatican defrocked former ambassador to the Dominican Republic Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski. Do these steps show a real intent to tackle the crisis, or are they mostly gestures to placate victims?

I don’t think they’re gestures. I think they do signal an intent on his part to go beyond what his predecessors did, or failed to do, and try to implement genuine reforms.

The issue he’s facing can be boiled down to this: The Vatican does not have an adequate system of justice. Canon law works fine as an administrative mechanism, but when it comes to criminal procedures, when it comes to a bona fide rule of law as we have in democratic countries — the Vatican needs that kind of independent judiciary, leadership and hierarchy.

Francis has moved in that direction with the law he promulgated last year, under which the former envoy to the Dominican Republic has been held accountable. [Wesolowski] has two months to appeal, and the real question is what happens if the guilt is upheld: Will they remand him for a trial in Italy? Will they impose criminal penalties where he’s actually put in a prison in Vatican City or in Rome? This is territory we have not seen before, but I think they’re steps in the right direction.

If Francis were to push ahead with reforms, from what quarters would he face the most serious opposition?

Cardinals and bishops. Holding aside any judgment on my part of how badly a number of those men have performed, their attitude probably goes something like this: They didn’t have leadership from John Paul II on this. He avoided the crisis. He was in enormous denial about it, and he didn’t deal with it.

The lawsuits, the scandals, the prosecutions kept building, mainly in the English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, between Ireland and the United States there were so many of these earthquakes that when The Boston Globe series began in 2002, John Paul — ill though he was from Parkinson’s — realized that he had to do something. The American cardinals went to Rome in the spring of 2002. Nothing really happened after that. There was no reform mechanism, there was no sweeping change — except they did start to defrock some of the worst perpetrators.

A lot of these bishops were acting under a business-as-usual mentality that had been in existence for decades, centuries. No one assumed that the church’s internal business would ever come under the harsh spotlight or microscope of a prosecutor or civil court. That monarchical mentality of the bishops collided with two democratic institutions: the court system and the free press. Many probably thought we were doing what we were expected to. This pope [Francis] comes along and starts punishing these bishops, instituting procedures to remove these men, and this seems to be what he is saying.

That is certainly what [advocates in Mexico, in Argentina, at SNAP] want, they want a judicial mechanism to remove bishops who’ve been grossly complicit. So, Francis is walking a tight rope.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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