On His First Anniversary, The New Pope Has An Old Problem
By Rich Barlow
March 13, 2014
Pope Francis is a godsend, rejecting Catholicism’s scalding scolding for the soothing tones of a gentle pastor, his admirers insist. Words are cheap, and Francis is a figurehead coasting on rhetoric without changing the church’s antediluvian social stances, critics scoff.
This he’s-floor wax-no-he’s-dessert-topping debate defines the reaction to the 266th pope as he marks his one-year anniversary today. (I purposefully ignore a third, kooky cranny of thought, the braying that Francis’s compassionate statements brand him as too lefty, even Marxist.) As a practicing Catholic, let me suggest a metric for judging this pope on which we all can agree: how will he handle the sexual abuse of children by priests and its cover-up by bishops? His compassion aside, early signs are worrisome.
Just last month, a United Nations panel flayed the Vatican’s handling of abuse cases. The Holy See continues to fight extending statutes of limitations for abuse, while demanding vows of silence from victims before compensating them, said the U.N. investigators, who reported tens of thousands of victims worldwide.
Even before Francis’s ascension, the traditionalist Catholic George Weigel, justifiably disgruntled over abuse-hiding bishops, hoped that the new pope would man up where his two predecessors didn’t and be “more severe” with pedophiles’ mitered confederates. And while a spokeswoman for the American bishops said run-amok abuse levels were in the past, the financial fallout continues to drain the collection basket. Last month, the financially and morally bankrupt Archdiocese of Milwaukee offered $4 million to abuse victims.
The U.N. panel bungled by taking potshots at the church’s conservative gender and sexual teachings, thereby mixing debatable issues with inarguable crimes. That’s why any judgment of Francis should be weighted toward how he handles the abuse cancer. There’s no debate between liberals and conservatives on this one: sin is sin, period. Facing this particular sin, the pope created an advisory commission on abuse, but exactly what it will do remains a will ‘o the wisp for the moment. Distressingly, Francis’s Vatican dismissed the U.N. allegations as dated (though the panel reported many predatory priests continue mingling with children), and its representatives ducked responsibility by saying their legal power to enforce child protection encompasses only Vatican City, not parishes globally. Given their canonical and moral authority in this famously hierarchical institution, it sounded as if the pope’s men had lawyered up.
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