Vatican faces new credibility test on abuse policy
After simmering for more than a decade, could the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church be ready to boil over once again? There are signs that it could.
No, I am not referring to the release of a scalding grand-jury report about the Diocese of Altoona, Pennsyvlania earlier this month. That report was disturbing, but the facts were not fresh; the criticism focused on two retired bishops, one of them deceased. There was no evidence in the report about current problems, or any alleged criminal acts that were not covered by the statute of limitations.
Nor do I mean the grueling interrogation of Cardinal George Pell by an Australian royal commission. The questioning was undoubtedly hostile, and the media in Australia vilified the cardinal mercilessly. But when the ordeal ended, there was no clear evidence of wrongdoing by Cardinal Pell: only very clear evidence that his accusers has abandoned the presumption of innocent-until-proven-guilty and that members of the royal commission saw themselves as inquisitors rather than investigators.
Finally, I do not mean the rave reviews for Spotlight, and the Oscar-night calls for changes in the Church. The movie is also looking back at past clerical misconduct; it is not an indictment of current practices.
What the Oscar for Spotlight and the Pell testimony and the Pennsylvania grand-jury report did show, however, is that the media remain willing to pounce on any hint of a suggestion that Church leaders are not diligent in their response to sex-abuse complaints. The Vatican’s statement on the matter released last week by the Vatican press office—lengthy, defensive, and nervous in tone—suggested that Vatican officials understood the need to be thorough and diligent in responding to the problem.
But then within a matter of days, two stories broke that called that understanding into question.
After his testimony, Cardinal Pell met privately with abuse victims, and evidently convinced them of his goodwill. “I think he gets it,” said one of the Australian victims. The cardinal had shown both compassion and savvy by inviting the victims to a private meeting, and promising to arrange the same sort of meeting with Pope Francis.
Unfortunately the meeting with Pope Francis never came to pass; the Australian victims went home disappointed. And the Vatican press office, explaining what might have looked like a snub, said that the Pope had never received a request for a meeting.
That statement is, frankly, hard to swallow. First, because the victims showed reporters a copy of the letter they had delivered to the pontifical household, seeking a meeting with the Pontiff. Second, because even before that letter was sent, members of the Australian group had spoken freely to the media about their desire to meet the Pope. Is it conceivable that the Pope’s staff was not aware of that desire? (I was fully aware of it, and I live 4,000 miles away!) The Pope was under no obligation to arrange a meeting. But the lame explanation released by the Vatican showed an alarming insensitivity toward people who were already complaining about the insensitivity of the Catholic hierarchy.
Then just a few days later, the Associated Press released a stunning report that in the nine months since Pope Francis created a tribunal to discipline bishops who neglect abuse, nothing has been done to make that tribunal a reality. Office space has not been arranged; staff has not been appointed. The Pope has not even named an official to head up the new office.
To make matters worse, the AP reported that the June 2015 announcement of the new tribunal came as a surprise to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was to be the home of the new body. So it appeared that the announcement had been made in haste, to ward off the persistent complaints that the Vatican was not holding bishops accountable, and then nothing had been done to follow up.
Pope Francis has been widely praised—and rightly so—for his firm statements of determination to punish abusers, and his promises to hold bishops accountable for their handling of the problem. Now his credibility is on the line. If the Vatican does not take concrete action soon, firm statements and fine promises will not hold off the critics much longer.
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