Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Why Pope Francis cannot win on sexual abuse

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 09, 2015

Pope Francis has done more than any of his predecessors to seek to punish those guilty of clerical sexual abuse. Even so, when he defends a cleric who has been accused, he is in a no-win situation. That’s because huge numbers of people form their positions on individual cases of sexual abuse without any significant knowledge of the facts.

Clearly it is foolish to reflexively deny claims of clerical sexual abuse by victims. Too many have been proved true. But it is just as foolish to reflexively believe such claims. We live in an age when people revel in victim status, confessing to all kinds of things on radio talk shows, making money from the media for “telling their story”, and often receiving significant cash settlements from the Church—not infrequently without going to trial.

It often takes far too long a time to recognize that someone has been abused, and to repair as much of the damage as possible. But those who are falsely accused are also thrust into a purgatory that may never end.

Pope Francis has deliberately created a sexual abuse commission which consists partly of victims and long-time victim-advocates. That’s probably a good thing. But it is very hard to find victims and long-time advocates who do not instinctively believe that every allegation against a cleric is true. This means that even the Pope cannot conclude that a bishop or a priest is innocent in a particular case without taking flak from his own commission.

The situation in the Diocese of Osorno in Chile is a case in point. Francis appointed Juan Barros as bishop there even though Fr. Barros had been accused of knowing about sexual abuse and doing nothing about it. Since then the Pope has defended the appointment because he believes the bishop to be innocent. He has even asserted that the Catholic protesters in that diocese have been “dumb” in taking their cues from “leftists” who hate the Church.

Obviously, many people disagree with that assessment. One of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has lamented the Pope’s position, and protesters on the scene are now disgusted with what they see as a lack of concern for victims by the very man who claims mercy as the centerpiece of his pontificate.

As I said, the Pope is in a no-win situation. In some cases, perhaps in this case, nobody outside the situation is completely sure of the truth, so any position might later be proven unjust. I do not know if Francis is right to support Bishop Juan Barros, and neither do you. Nor do the members of the abuse commission; nor do the protesters in Chile. Meanwhile, the Pope has as strong an obligation to defend unjustly accused clerics as to ensure the punishment of those who are guilty.

The popular side in the world at the present time is the side of all who claim to be victims. If they really are victims, they deserve support; but either way, they are fodder for the secularist anti-Catholic narrative. But what if justice does not lie on the popular side? Obviously every bishop, including the Pope, should be on the side of justice. Sadly, in the court of public opinion, justice is only seldom on the winning side.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 10, 2016 8:28 AM ET USA

    If Cardinal Sarah is intent on priests celebrating Mass ad orientem then he must address the Bishops under whom the priests serve. To tell a priest to do something without his Bishops blessing is not a Catholic ideal. So when we hear of an instruction to the Bishops from Cardinal Sarah that sets the standard for celebrating Mass as ad orientem then I will get excited. Pray for Cardinal Sarah to have the strength to do his job.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 08, 2016 11:03 AM ET USA

    Our pastor advised our congregation that "getting something out of it," our action in various roles etc are irrelevant when it comes to holy Mass. The Mass is a generous, unmerited invitation on the part of our Lord to unite ourselves to his supreme act of love for his father on Calvary. We offer ourselves in union with Christ to God. We adore, thank, petition, and offer atonement to God. The priest and we united with him present to the Father the Son's sacrifice at Mass. This gives us hope.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 08, 2016 1:18 AM ET USA

    I am glad you provided links to the two addresses. The speakers understand that we cannot repair society until we first repair the Church. And that repair should start with proper implementation of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and with enthusiasm in support of the Extraordinary Form. How many prelates have to lament the abuses of the Ordinary Form before the episcopate finally gets the message? Stop tinkering with the Mass. Offer the Mass for all the faithful, not only for your cronies.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 10, 2015 10:01 PM ET USA

    One place to start would be to state the facts. As I recall, earlier this year you posted my cursory statistical analysis of the John Jay report. My unweighted average of 6 measures of clerical abuse demonstrated that upwards of 75% of this abuse was perpetrated against boys. Make no mistake, I am not judging ("Who am I to judge?"). However, if the pope cannot bring himself to state the facts, maybe he should appoint one of the courageous African bishops to say it like it is.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Oct. 10, 2015 8:34 PM ET USA

    We have no choice but to rest assured that the Holy Spirit is guiding Pope Francis through these troubled waters and many others.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 10, 2015 6:41 PM ET USA

    If you know "perception is reality" to be true when it comes to forming popular general opinion (regardless if that process is flawed or not) and you know you have no control over that process, why put someone in a significant leadership & influential position if there is some question about that person's ability to address sexual abuse or suspicion around their culpability relating to sexual abuse? The Pope is probably right but how successful can the Bishop be given the perception of guilt?

  • Posted by: quinn1971 - Oct. 09, 2015 8:13 PM ET USA

    Jeff the matters of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy are quite complex. Most abusers are schooled in deception by the father of lies. While most extend maximum latitude to the Vicar of Christ, we are not blind or deaf. So Daneels? Bonny? What kind of person, not to mention Catholic clergy, are not aware that the members of what appear to be the Pontiff's confidants are facilitators of the "filth"?