The Daily Beast
by Christopher Dickey
Mar 17, 2013
The new pontiff’s past reputation is hard to square with his affable presence today. His actions in the weeks to come will tell us who he really is, writes Christopher Dickey.
It was probably inevitable that Pope Francis, whose humor and informality charmed hundreds of members of the international press corps at a gathering on Saturday, would lean down and pet the big golden Labrador seeing-eye dog that accompanied a blind journalist. Of course the crowd applauded. The gesture was perfectly natural and unforced; the kind of thing parishioners would expect from a fatherly priest, and that many of the world’s Catholics hope for from the man they now call Holy Father.
There was no hint on the stage Saturday of the uptight young Jesuit administrator, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, accused of complacency if not complicity while a savage military regime waged what came to be called “The Dirty War” to exterminate guerrillas in his native Argentina more than 30 years ago.
The contrasting images are so striking that it’s tempting to say that one of them must be false, or that, if the past was ugly, it really is just ancient history now. As one young woman with the Vatican staff said indignantly when asked about the Argentine allegations, “If this press corps had been around when Saint Peter became pope, you would be writing headlines about how he denied Christ three times” (as the Gospel tells us he did). “What is important,” she said, “is what the Holy Father does now.”
She has a point. But what Pope Francis does now, in the first days and weeks and months of his papacy, will tell us an enormous amount about where he is coming from and how that affects where he hopes to go. ...
Symbolically, Francis is off to a bad start. The morning after his election he went to pray at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is the papal basilica in the city of Rome. That would not be controversial, except that the infamous former cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, is resident there. Law resigned his post in the United States more than ten years ago after the courts reviewed devastating evidence that he knowingly protected criminally abusive priests. His former archdiocese has paid out more than $100 million to settle hundreds of civil suits by the victims.
What Francis said to Law when the two of them met and briefly embraced at the Rome basilica is not known. Some reports in the Italian press said the pope told Law he must retire to a monastery. But Vatican spokesmen flatly denied that.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests, said Saturday that the encounter between the pope and this known protector of pedophiles was “extraordinarily hurtful.” “If you ignore wrongdoing,” said Clohessy, “you condone wrongdoing.” And if that is the case under Francis, then millions of children will remain at risk from predators in clerical collars. But Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an exhaustive database of abuse, was, while very cautious, also a little optimistic. She would give Francis “the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
At a series of press conferences, Doyle and Clohessy have suggested several substantive steps Francis might take to strengthen the Church’s reputation for zero tolerance of child abuse. One critical change would be the removal of such senior officials in the Vatican as Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who heads the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Clohessy and Doyle presented specific allegations that Müller had protected a convicted pedophile among the priests in his archdiocese. Ideally, the activists would like to see Müller’s office release the name of all credibly accused priests who have come to its attention, so that, at a minimum, parents and children in their parishes can be warned. The pope does not have to write an encyclical to make that happen. All he has to do is give the word.