Pope Francis – The Tragedy of Child Abuse Requires Severe Punishments
By Brian Mark Hennessey
The apparent despair of Pope Francis as he remonstrated about the sexual abuse of children in a public address in St. Peter’s Square last Sunday is not the first time that he has been very outspoken on the issue. His cry, “God weeps” during his tour of the United States in the fall of last year had resonances that dated back to his first forthright statement on the matter in 2014 – when he exclaimed that “there was no place in the Catholic Church for clerics who abused children”. On this most recent occasion he is reported as having stated – as he raised his arm in emphasis – “This is a tragedy, we must not tolerate the abuse of minors. We must defend minors and we must severely punish the abusers.” But – does Pope Francis really mean what he says – or is he window-dressing?
On this latest occasion, in which he addressed the crimes of child sexual abuse, the Pope made no mention of the Catholic Church specifically. Yet the worldwide context of his words is that the Church has had to face scandal after scandal in regard to its handling of the sexual abuse of minors by clerics and the ineffective action of diocesan clergy and the heads of Religious Orders. These failures have, of course, been to the detriment of victims of abuse who have been brushed aside by Diocesan and Religious leaders as untruthful money grabbers or bribed and subjected to oaths of silence. The range of allegations against and criticism of the Church have been legion – but include a cover up by clergy of all ranks. It has to be noted that the Cardinals of the Vatican – notably the Australian Cardinal Pell who is Prefect of the Vatican Bank and the German Cardinal Muller the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are included in that list – and they are currently at the very top of the Vatican pile – and have influence that can retard even the progress of a Pope.
Despite the words of Pope Francis on the subject of child abuse, there appears to have been little practical gain in addressing the problem. Take for example the Pontifical Commission instituted by Pope Francis himself and dedicated specifically to the protection of minors in the Church. The profoundly sincere Boston Cardinal O’Malley, who heads up that worthy task, which is to make clergy, specifically Bishops and the Heads of Religious Orders, accountable for their failure to manage the crimes of the sexual abuse of minors and ensure that those prelates adopt due process to rid the Church of paedophile clerics, appears to have lost the ear of Pope Francis. Evidence of this is that members of the Commission have complained that the Commission is not being adequately resourced financially and that the Prefects of the Vactican Congregations are unsympathetic to a large degree – and blatantly un-cooperative or even decidedly contrary. Pope Francis has been either ineffective in, or prevented by what conspiracy theorists would call ‘powerful dark forces” from, remedying these issues.
When it comes to dealing with offending prelates of the Church found guilty of sexual abuse, or inaction rather than proactivity when faced with such crimes, there has been little strong action, which in my book, relates to being “severely punished”! Admittedly, the events that led to Catherine Devenney revealing Cardinal Keith O’Brien,’s sexual impropriety, were during the Pontificate of Benedict XVI. The revelations resulted in a series of events that included O’Brien’s suspension from and then loss of the Archpishopric of Scotland and his exclusion by Pope Benedict from the 2013 Vatican Papal Conclave in the Sistine Chapel that elected Pope Francis – and in 2014 his exceptional, enforced resignation from the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes – all that was humiliating, but Pope Francis, on taking over the reins of the Vatican, merely banned him to live a private life of prayer and penance in a comfortable, secluded Church establishment – and probably with his stipend intact. Penance and prayer is what I thought was the daily job of all clerics anyway! Not much more than a cleric’s normal daily routine has been heaped by Pope Francis on the offendending ex-Cardinal.
Moreover, (and this is right up the street of the Mirfield 12 Group of abused child seminarians) we hear in the last week or so that a Polish Archbishop, who resigned many years ago after sexually molesting Catholic seminarians, has recently been warned by the Vatican to stay away from commemorations of Poland’s Christian conversion and an upcoming visit by the Pope. Reports state that the Vatican’s Warsaw-based nuncio Archbishop Celestino Migliore has told the offending Archbishop Juliusz Paetz, formerly of Poznan, that “The Holy Father (Pope Francis) reiterates his invitation for you to live a life of privacy in repentance and prayer. Media news about your participation in official celebrations of the anniversary of Poland’s baptism has created a new situation of unnecessary and harmful commotion for the church in Poland and the Holy See. It blatantly contradicts the instructions given you.” No hint of severe punishment for a crime of abusing child seminarians there! In fact the Archbishop continued to live peacefully in his existing surroundings after the abuse was both admitted by him and he resigned. This ex-Archbishop subsequently also visited the Vatican frequently, stayed at the Vatican Curia and, indeed, met with Pope Benedict, who congratulated him for his significant contributions to the Church in Poland! (Well – I have heard child abuse described somewhat differently than that!)
Currently, the French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon is under state judicial investigation over his mishandling (total inaction more precisely) of sexual abuse accusations against his own clergy. A group of 45 abuse survivors, La Parole Liberee, is sueing the archbishop for failing to report abuse, a crime (alas it is a crime in France but not in the United Kingdom) that risks a three-year jail term. The Group has also filed a civil lawsuit against Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith. There appears to be no Church process in play to investigate the Cardinal – and no Vatican censure from Cardinal Muller (well how could he – being accused of the same offence!).
In summation, either Pope Francis is incincere in his continual remonstrations about clerics who commit abuse and clerics who cover it up – or is not up to the job – or employs a bunch of clerics at the Vatican who are so tainted themselves with the failures against which Francis continually expostulates that his own good intentions are systematically confounded. I suspect, indeed believe, it is the last. The Curia needs a good shake up – and Francis must get into hiring and firing mode – or he will lose both his battle – and his supportive and hopeful followers. Victims of crimes very very rarely want “revenge” – but they do need an admission of the crimes committed against them – and they are entitled to “justice. When Pope Francis talks of “severe punishment” he must be more precise and such punishment must be equitable with those punishments that the Civil States of this world – with the concensus of the populations of this world – hold to to be commensurate with the crime. I doubt if the Pope, in his sublime role, has ever heard of Gilbert and Sullivan – but he could do no better than start singing along with the Mikado and adopting as his anthem: “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, To let the punishment fit the crime, The punishment fit the crime”!
Brian Mark Hennessy