As I listen to Leonardo Boff predict a new springtime in the Catholic church due to Pope Francis (see here and here), I don't want to take my eyes off what has happened up to now with the new pope vis-à-vis the biggest crisis the church has faced since the Reformation. This is the crisis provoked by sexual abuse of minors by Catholic religious authority figures.
What has happened with Francis so far on this front is, lamentably, almost nothing at all. As Anne Barrett Doyle and Terence McKiernan recently wrote for Bishop Accountability,
He [Francis] has expressed solidarity with nearly every vulnerable population except for those who were sexually abused within the church.
In a recent article noting Francis's lack of substantial action on the issue of sexual abuse, veteran Vatican watcher John Allen cites Barbara Dorris, SNAP leader, who says,
Like all of his predecessors, Pope Francis is acting belatedly, secretively and recklessly [i.e., in addressing cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests].
As Allen adds,
In other words, some critics charge that the "Francis revolution" -- generally understood to mean a more transparent, accountable and compassionate church -- has not yet arrived vis-à-vis the abuse crisis.
In a recent posting at his Christian Catholicism site, Jerry Slevin notes that at the very same time Allen published his National Catholic Reporter article about Francis and the abuse crisis, the council of eight cardinals selected to advise Francis on reforming the church ended its meeting in Rome without having said a thing about the abuse crisis--and with convicted criminal Bishop Robert Finn still holding his episcopal seat in Kansas City. At the same time, as Jerry also points out, President Obama praised the new pope, while news broke that Father Kevin McDonough, brother of Obama's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, may have been involved in covering up abuse cases in the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. Kevin McDonough was vicar general of the archdiocese prior to Msgr. Peter Laird, who has just resigned that position after his role in covering up abuse cases became known.
Jerry thinks that the implications of Obama's statement about Francis are not yet entirely clear, but it remains clear that, unless the pope deals transparently and proactively with the abuse crisis, his proposed reforms of the church will amount to very little, and will cause his papacy to go up in smoke in the same way that that of his predecessor Benedict failed. Jerry argues,
Francis must promptly make the Church’s leaders accountable to the faithful, the Gospels and civil law, especially with respect to protecting defenseless children. He must initiate and enforce specific and effective policies to do this, before government prosecutors from Australia, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, the USA, Peru, Chile, Argentina, the Phillipines, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, or from dozens of other countries, do so for him.
As I think about these matters, how can I avoid also wondering whether the gang of eight would have met, done business, and remained silent about the abuse situation if those eight advisory cardinals had included at least one (and why not more?) female cardinals. As NCR writes in its most recent editorial, which insists that it's time for women to have real authority in the Catholic church,
In the secular world, women run multimillion-dollar corporations, lead governments, go to war. Yes, glass ceilings still exist in most industries, and any study on pay will tell you women do not have across-the-board equality. But more and more, women are getting a shot at positions of authority. Women are presidents and CEOs of Catholic hospitals, charities and universities, and women religious are superiors of multinational congregations with thousands of members. Opportunities, though, in the institutional church are slim for women, and they are tired of waiting and have little patience for promises. Too often, they've heard the words but have not seen the follow-through.
As Chris Morley notes in a comment here yesterday, the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet recently published an open letter to the pope as the eight cardinals met in Rome. That letter strongly urges Francis to address the abuse crisis effectively, and to do so, in part, by recognizing "the rights and responsibilities of the baptised to participate in the deliberative decision-making of our Church." The letter specifies that these rights must include the right of lay Catholics to select their own bishops--a point directly related to the abuse crisis, insofar as it has been bishops (who are not selected by the faithful themselves) who have spearheaded the cover-up of abuse in the church.
As it calls for a church that recognizes the fundamental equality of all its members, the letter also states,
Catholic teaching tells us that all persons have been created with equal dignity in the image of God. Therefore church structures must reflect this reality. Since all governance in the Church now rests exclusively with ordained male celibate priests, this excludes the vast majority of baptised Catholics. Therefore we recommend a canonical study of the feasibility of linking church governance to baptism rather than to ordination. With regard to ordained ministry, we recommend that identifying the call be based on individual and communal discernment of the candidate's gifts, spirituality, pastoral sense, and theological formation, rather than gender, sexual orientation, or state in life. We reject the sexist exclusion of women from full participation at all levels of the Church. Equally, it is unacceptable to deny our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters' access to full participation in every aspect of Church life and ministry. And it is unjust to ordain married male ministers from other denominations, while refusing to accept lifelong Catholic priests who have left the active ministry to marry. Further, divorced and remarried Catholics should not be withheld from full communion; their personal conscience in this matter should be respected.
I find it impossible to argue with the logic at work here: if lay Catholics had been permitted a hand in governing our church, the abuse crisis would long since have been dealt with openly and effectively. And if women enjoyed governing power in the church equal to that of men, it would very likely have never reached the crisis point it has reached now.
I hope Francis is listening.
The graphic: a photograph by Stefan Wermuth of photos of sexual abuse victims placed outside the Vatican Embassy in London in September 2010, from Reuters.