As news about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal spreads, public confidence in Pope Francis’ handling of the matter has plummeted. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that six in ten American Catholics say the pope is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job of managing the scandal.
That is almost double the share who said he was doing a poor job earlier this year, and triple the share who said this in 2015. The lack of confidence is also broadly based—both Catholic women and men, young and old, and church-attending or not, have grown increasingly critical of this pontiff.
Of course, the pope is not competing in a popularity contest. Furthermore, the Pew survey registers only American Catholics’ views. All the same, the loss of confidence in Francis reflects that his mismanagement of the crisis has been a scandal in itself. It may also reveal a growing public awareness of Francis’ own poor record. That record, as we recently argued in these pages, has been marked by indifference or disbelief toward abuse victims, coupled with protectiveness and credulity in dealing with their abusers.
Francis Owes the World an Answer to These Charges
New evidence from Italy supports the case against Francis’ probity. These recent allegations, we emphasize, have not been tested and proven in the courts of law (although earlier accusations involving Francis have). Moreover, after the sobering experience of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, this country needs no reminder of the importance of providing corroboration (in the form of witnesses or evidence) to sustain accusations.
The simple fact that an accuser, or even several accusers, steps forward does not amount to proof. Where there is doubt, the accused should have the benefit of it.
But it would equally be mistaken to assume that the accused is always in the right. When numerous accusers make serious charges, have no apparent pre-existing bias against the person they accuse, and are willing to submit to cross-examination and judicial action, then, as lawyers say, the burden of producing evidence may shift to the accused. That is especially so when the same accused and his close associates have faced similar charges but refused to answer them openly, honestly, and directly, and when they have access to evidence that could confirm or refute the accusers but withhold it.
Further, in the Italian case, the accusers allege that the Italian government, and not merely Pope Francis, refuses to examine claims of clerical sexual abuse. None of that substantiates the charges. But it does place the onus on Francis and the Vatican to answer them.
Kavanaugh confronted his accusers, answered hostile questions from Democratic senators under oath and before millions of viewers, produced documentary evidence rebutting his chief accuser, and carried the day. Let that be an example to the pope and his team.
Is Francis Unconcerned About Abuse Victims?
In Italy, Francesco Zenardi, the president of an Italian abuse survivors group called Rete L’Abuso (Abuse Network), recently described Francis’ management of the sex abuse scandals as “dramatic and disastrous.” “His commitment to ‘zero tolerance’ is only on paper and for the TV cameras,” Zenardi said.
Zenardi discussed four specific cases in which he said Francis had been notified of clerical abuses or cover-ups but had done nothing. In one case, Zenardi alleged that Mario Enrico Delpini, whom Francis named the archbishop of Milan in 2017, covered up for at least one offender-priest who was allowed to continue his abuses for years. That abuser is now serving time in Italian prison. Francis is also reported to have ignored the abuse of at least one boy attending classes within the Vatican’s walls, and the systemic abuse of children at the Antonio Provolo Institute for the deaf in Verona.
The same abuse survivors group says Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, who currently heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith co(CDF), covered up certain Vatican officials’ abuse of the pope’s altar boys. Then, a German journalist details how Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, also at the CDF and accused of being involved in a drug-fueled orgy that occurred in CDF offices, engaged in efforts to promote leniency toward sexual abusers.
Astonishingly, CDF is the Vatican body tasked with investigating sex-abuse cases. Even those who consider Francis sympathetic to survivors’ claims are angry with his Vatican’s reluctance to investigate clerical abusers and hold them accountable.
One such individual is Marie Collins, herself a survivor, whom Francis named in 2014 to the eight-member Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Francis charged that committee with recommending measures to deal with clerical child abuse. Collins resigned from the committee in 2017, saying that the Vatican’s resistance to the committee was “soul-destroying.”
Collins also condemned the “constant setbacks” Vatican officials had caused. “The lack of co-operation, particularly by the [department] most closely involved in dealing with cases of abuse, has been shameful,” Collins wrote.
Whether Francis’ professions of sympathy for survivors are staged or genuine, he can be held accountable for the obstructiveness of his ranking subordinates, just as any corporate CEO would be. The buck stops at the chair of Peter.
Earlier Evidence of Francis’s Lack of Concern
The pope’s alleged indifference to abuses in Italy is consistent with the pattern of his conduct before he assumed the papacy. Our earlier article referred to a lengthy and detailed Der Spiegel report, which reviewed Francis’ record as a cardinal archbishop in his native Argentina. Der Spiegel is a leading (and left-leaning) German news magazine that has no ideological axe to grind against Francis, and had earlier praised him effusively.
In Argentina too, Francis (then Cardinal Jorge Borgoglio) doubted or ignored abuse survivors, including a girl who was seven years old at the time she was abused. Francis also ordered and supported the legal defense of a priest who is serving time in Argentinian prison for raping young boys.
Next door to Francis’ native Argentina, in Chile, when abuse survivors complained about Bishop Juan Barros’s cover-up of abuses committed by his mentor, priest Fernando Karadima, Francis immediately took the side of the bishop and called the allegations “calumny,” or slander. Later, Francis had to back down, but his knee-jerk defense of the Chilean hierarchy and strident dismissal of their accusers speaks volumes about his clericalist instincts.
Furthermore, it is emerging that former Chilean Archbishop Francisco Cox, who is living out his final years in Germany, was a serial abuser of children as well. The current archbishop of Santiago has also been accused of covering up for abuser-priests. More on Chile below.
In Honduras, former auxiliary bishop Juan Jose Pineda was accused of financial corruption, and the widespread sexual assault and abuse of seminarians. Pineda has since resigned, but his boss— Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a close ally of Pope Francis—remains in his position.
When more than 50 seminarians spoke out about the abuses and behavior of others in the seminary, even going so far as to petition Francis, this same cardinal attacked them, accusing them of spreading malicious gossip. Francis has had nothing to say about this, either.
Is the Pope’s Inner Circle of Advisors Tainted?
From the start of his papacy, Francis has surrounded himself with a hand-picked inner circle of cardinal advisers—a kind of papal “kitchen cabinet.” He also purged dissidents considered to be “conservatives,” prompting the respected Catholic journalist John Allen to ask early in this papacy, “Does Pope Francis have an enemies list?”
This inner circle of nine cardinals close to Francis has become known as the “C9.” Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, whom we’ve just mentioned, is the coordinator of the C9. According to no less an authority than the left-wing Mother Jones, the pope’s “blind spot on sexual misconduct begins with” the C9.
Two of the pope’s C9 intimates are under investigation or prosecution. Australian Cardinal George Pell is accused of abusing minors decades ago, and currently faces charges in Australia, although he may be aquitted.
The second is Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa of Chile, who is facing questioning for allegedly hiding the flagrant abuses of disgraced Chilean priest, the aforementioned Karadima. Errázuriz Ossa is a close ally of Francis, going back at least to 2007, when Errázuriz Ossa and then-Cardinal Borgoglio worked together to have the church place a greater emphasis on environmental issues—getting their priorities right, so to say.
When other Chilean bishops, including Juan Barros, stood accused of covering up clerical sex abuses, Francis vehemently defended them. Francis appointed Barros bishop over the stiff resistance of numerous Chilean Catholics, hundreds of whom demonstrated at Barros’ installation mass. At a meeting with Chilean Catholics, Francis told them that their objections to Barros were mistaken: “Think with your heads and do not be led by the noses by the lefties who orchestrated this whole thing,” Francis reportedly told them.
But Francis turned on his Chilean prelates after receiving a 2,300-page report prepared by two Vatican sex abuse experts that found the Chilean hierarchy’s protection of children from pedophiles had been gravely defective. Yet even though 34 Chilean bishops tendered their resignations to the pope after the report was submitted, Errázuriz Ossa remained a member of the College of Cardinals and of the C9.
Protecting the Cardinals Who Helped Elect Him?
According to “Lost Shepherd,” a recent book by the accomplished Catholic author Philip Lawlor, the election of then-Cardinal Bergoglio to the papacy was promoted before the 2013 conclave by a small group of “progressive” cardinals, including Godfried Danneels, Carlo Montini, Achille Silvestrini, Karl Lehmann, Walter Kasper, and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The small group of “progressives” has been called “The St. Gallen Mafia,” in reference to the town in Switzerland where they gathered.
Based on a biography of Danneels (who called the group a “mafia club”), the group began planning Bergoglio’s election after their attempt to defeat his predecessor (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) failed in the conclave of 2005.
If it is true that the cardinals involved had agreed to form a lobbying group to campaign for Bergoglio, they would have been in clear violation of the rules governing papal elections. Under rules promulgated in 1996 by Pope John Paul II, cardinal-electors are forbidden “during the Pope’s lifetime and without having consulted him, to make plans concerning the election of his successor, or to promise votes, or to make decisions in this regard in private gatherings.”
Among the members of the St. Gallen group was Cardinal Murphy O’Connor of England. Hewas too old to vote in the 2013 conclave, but not too old to influence the outcome, and reportedly a key figure in Francis’ election. According to a biographer of Francis named Austen Iveigh, Murphy-O’Connor began to sound Bergoglio out before the conclave to see if he would accept the St. Gallen’s group’s plans. Murphy O’Connor allegedly warned Bergoglio to “be careful,” but said it was his turn. Bergoglio is said to have answered, “I understand.”
Also involved in the lobbying effort (if it was that) to elect Bergoglio was now-disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington DC. Both Murphy-O’Connor (who is now dead) and McCarrick came under suspicion of sexual abuse during Francis’ papacy, and his actions—or inaction—in their cases lead one to wonder if he was paying back their electoral favors.
Murphy-O’Connor was accused of abusing a teenage girl decades ago, and there is significant evidence that the pope shut down an investigation into Murphy-O’Connor. Such, at least, seems to be suggested by Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the CDF prefect (CDF), the church’s body tasked with investigating sex-abuse cases. As for McCarrick, although Francis belatedly got around to disciplining him, he had earlier promoted him to one of the highest non-papal positions in the church, and it is alleged that Francis knew of McCarrick’s misdeeds before the promotion.
As for Vigano’s Charges and Ouellet’s Response
This leads us, finally, to the accusations against Francis lodged by the former Vatican nuncio (diplomat) to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Viganò’s original charges focused mainly on Pope Francis’ handling of McCarrick.
Specifically, Viganò charged that Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had imposed “sanctions” on McCarrick because of his sexual misconduct, but that Francis, on becoming pope, had lifted those sanctions. When the world press made Francis aware of Viganò’s accusations, he refused to answer them. And the pope has maintained silence ever since.
But one of Francis’ subordinates at the Vatican, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, has undertaken to reply to Viganò—the only occasion, we believe, in which a cardinal in the Roman curia (or court) has done so publicly.
Ouellet’s criticism of Viganò is sharp and severe. But when his refutation of Viganò is parsed closely, its outward force evaporates. Indeed, it emerges as equivocal and downright evasive. If this is how Francis and his Vatican advisers are seeking to smother the fire Viganò set, they have only added to the flames.
“The written instructions prepared for you by the Congregation for Bishops at the beginning of your service in 2011 did not say anything about McCarrick, except what I told you about his situation as an Emeritus Bishop who had to obey certain conditions and restrictions because of rumors about his behavior in the past.”
“The former cardinal, who retired in May 2006, was strongly urged not to travel and not to appear in public, in order not to provoke further rumours about him. It is false to present the measures taken against him as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and annulled by Pope Francis.”
“After reviewing the archives, I note that there are no documents in this regard signed by either Pope, nor a note of audience from my predecessor, Cardinal Giovanni-Battista Re, which gave mandate to the Archbishop Emeritus McCarrick to silence and private life, with the rigor of canonical penalties. The reason for this is that, unlike today, there was not enough evidence of his alleged guilt at the time. Hence the position of the Congregation inspired by prudence and the letters of my predecessor and mine that reiterated, through the Apostolic Nuncio Pietro Sambi and then also through you, the exhortation to a discreet lifestyle of prayer and penance for his own good and that of the Church. His case would have been the subject of new disciplinary measures if the Nunciature in Washington, or any other source, had provided us with recent and decisive information on his behavior.”
So Ouellet would have the world believe that the “measures taken against [McCarrick],” or what he also calls “certain conditions and restrictions,” were not “sanctions.” That is absurd. The “measures” were: no public appearances and no public speaking. Those are unquestionably “sanctions,” even if not formal ones. Informal sanctions are sanctions, and Ouellet himself says that McCarrick “had to obey” them.
Yes, the “restrictions” were not imposed as “canonical penalties” after a trial under canon law. And perhaps there are “no documents signed by either Pope” that impose “canonical penalties.” But again, that obscures the main issue. We already knew that McCarrick was not under canonical penalties because his first canon law trial is scheduled for next year. The relevant question is whether there are any signed papal (or other) documents that imposed the conditions and restrictions that applied to McCarrick, or that lifted them.
Ouellet simply refuses to address whether Francis lifted those “conditions and restrictions” or not. But that is the key question here, and the gravamen of Viganò’s original charges. Ouellet is trying to dodge the bullet. That maneuver does not clarify the issue: it merely obfuscates, and therefore it deepens suspicions.
We Know Evidence Exists, But It’s Being Sidelined
Further, if there were both “rumours about [McCarrick] in the past,” were they investigated? If not, why not? Why wasn’t there “enough evidence”? Did nobody in the Vatican particularly care if the rumors about McCarrick were true? Evidence usually does not just drop out of the sky. Someone has to gather it.
But in fact there was evidence, which Ouellet slithers over. Fr. Boniface Ramsey, a Dominican and then a professor at a Catholic seminary in New Jersey, wrote to the Vatican in 2000, just six years before McCarrick’s retirement, with detailed information about McCarrick’s predatory activities. Ramsey did not get a reply until 2006.
Ramsey did not retain a copy of his letter, but has the Vatican’s reply. Ouellet surely saw the original letter if he reviewed the archives with due diligence. Why did he not mention it? And why does the Vatican not disclose it?
Note that Ouellet talks about “reviewing the archives.” If Francis wants transparency on this matter, let him publish all the archival material that Ouellet reviewed. That might clear away a lot of suspicion. Furthermore, let Ouellet appear for a press conference before the world media and undergo an hour or more of questioning. Let the Kavanaugh model apply to Ouellet.
It’s Time to Come Clean
It’s time for full and frank disclosure. Yet Francis’ pattern of avoidance continues. Last Friday, he announced his acceptance of the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor as the archbishop of Washington DC.
A Pennsylvania grand jury had named Wuerl some 200 times in connection with the cover-up of clerical sex abuses, when Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh. Outraged Catholic laity demanded that he resign his current position. But in accepting his resignation, Francis praised Wuerl’s “nobility,” held him up as a model bishop, and announced that he would stay on in Washington DC as a caretaker until his replacement arrives.
Is the pope simply tone-deaf to the growing indignation of the world? Or is he overbearingly arrogant, scornful, and defiant?
This article has been corrected with regard to the date John Paul II died and the CDF acronym’s referring title.