Spotlight on Francis
By William Doino
March 14, 2016
When Spotlight, the critically acclaimed film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sexual abuse, won best picture at this year’s Oscars, producer Michael Sugar accepted the award with a message:
This film gave a voice to survivors and this Oscar amplifies that voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children, and restore the faith.
That statement was welcomed by many victims of clergy abuse, who believe the movie’s success validates their long fight for justice; but it was also criticized for leaving the impression that the Church has done nothing to combat sexual abuse since the Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation. As Joan Desmond, who covered the abuse crisis extensively, commented:
Did the producer stop researching this topic after the Globe published its page-one stories about the cover-up in Boston more than a decade earlier? Is Michael Sugar unaware that since 2002 the Church has mounted a massive campaign to establish and implement ambitious guidelines for the protection of children and young people?
It’s a necessary question, but it’s also fair to ask whether Pope Francis, for all the excellent things he has said and done about fighting the evil of clergy sexual abuse, has lived up to all his promises. The answer, at least at this point, is no. And there are fears that he may be backsliding.
A recent Vatican press release underscores the concern. Following the publicity given Spotlight, Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, complained that the Church was being unfairly criticized for its response to the scandals in Boston:
Objective consideration shows this is not the case. The previous archbishop [Cardinal Bernard Law] resigned in 2002 following the events considered in Spotlight (and after a famous meeting of American Cardinals convoked in Rome by Pope John Paul II in April 2002), and since 2003 (that is, for 13 years) the Archdiocese has been governed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, universally known for his rigor and wisdom in confronting the issue of sexual abuse, to the extent of being appointed by the Pope as one of his advisors and as president of the Commission instituted by the Holy Father for the protection of minors.
And yet, many would contend that an “objective consideration” of the Vatican’s reaction to the events described in Spotlight gives a much different picture. The first story the Globe published about the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of clergy sexual abuse appeared on January 6, 2002. But Cardinal Law did not resign until December 13, 2002—almost a full year after many more such stories had appeared, and the scandals had taken an enormous toll. On January 9, 2002, right after the Globe had revealed Law had protected abusive clergy, the Cardinal held a press conference in which he declared, “There is no priest in an assignment in this Archdiocese whom we know to have been guilty of child abuse.” But according to Spotlight’s lead editor, Walter Robinson, and writer, Michael Rezendes, that statement was simply untrue—and there is hard documentation to prove it.
Pope John Paul II did indeed hold a meeting of Cardinals on the abuse crisis in Rome in April in 2002, but that same month, Cardinal Law, by then under huge pressure to resign, submitted his resignation to the Vatican, only to have it inexplicably rejected. Cardinal Law, with Rome’s approval, continued to lead the Archdiocese of Boston for the next eight months, even as more terrible revelations about the cover-up appeared, and anguished Catholics pleaded with the Vatican to replace Law. Nothing was done. Only toward the end of the year, after dozens of the Cardinal’s own Boston priests urged him to resign, did the Vatican accept Law’s resignation. The only reason Cardinal Law wasn’t indicted, according to Tom Reilly, the former attorney general of Massachusetts, was because, tragically, the state’s child abuse reporting laws were not expanded to include priests until after the terrible acts were committed. None of these important facts were mentioned by Father Lombardi. Nor did he mention that after Cardinal Law resigned his post in Boston, Pope John Paul II appointed him archpriest of one of Rome’s most splendid basilicas, Santa Maria Maggiore. JP II also allowed him, as did Pope Benedict, to keep his power in the College of Cardinals, as well as his positions on prominent Vatican Commissions, including, incredibly, the Congregation of Bishops, which assists the pope in selecting new bishops to guide the faithful. In 2011, Cardinal Law finally retired in Rome, in considerable comfort, but his legacy still haunts the Church.
That Pope Francis, who has called for transparency and honesty in the Church, would allow his spokesman to issue such a selective and sanitized press release about the Boston scandals reveals that the Holy See has still never fully come to terms with Cardinal Law’s disgraceful conduct, and the Holy See’s own failure, past and present, to deal with it appropriately.
As for the Pope’s new sex abuse Commission, headed by Cardinal O’Malley, it got off to a promising start, but has since been shaken by the Commission’s decision to remove (or send on an indefinite “leave of absence”) one of its members, Peter Saunders, an abuse victim himself, who has been highly critical of the Commission’s work (or lack of it). Worse, reports have surfaced that one of the Pope’s most important initiatives for the Commission—its creation of a new Vatican tribunal to handle “abuse of office” cases against bishops—is “going nowhere,” and is now in a state of disarray, because, after being announced nine months ago, nothing significant has been done to actually implement its promises. As Philip Lawler noted: “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.”
Equally serious is the Vatican’s reaction to two other situations.
The first concerns Australian’s Cardinal George Pell. Cardinal Pell is an articulate and widely-admired spokesman for Catholic orthodoxy, who now serves as one of Francis’s leading advisors, and is his chief financial officer in Rome. But Pell has been under a cloud of suspicion in Australia recently, stemming from his alleged neglect of sexual abuse victims while he was a bishop there. Cardinal Pell’s supporters maintain that he is a man of integrity, and has himself become the victim of unfair and unproven allegations, while other, more liberal bishops, even more implicated in scandals, have gotten off scot-free. But granting the Cardinal his full presumption of innocence (which his accusers have not done), one need only listen to the Cardinal Pell’s own distressing comments to recognize his serious negligence as a Catholic leader.
In testimony to Australia’s royal commission for child abuse, Pell admitted that “I should have done more” to investigate grave acts of sexual abuse, but insisted definite knowledge of crimes had been withheld from him by others. In an interview with Andrew Bolt of Sky News, who has been very sympathetic to the Cardinal, Pell went further, and acknowledged that “I might have put the Church first . . . rather than the victims, but I am certainly not here to put myself first”—a statement his critics say can be demonstrated by humbly resigning. But that is highly unlikely, given Francis’s support for the Cardinal, and the Vatican’s aforementioned press release, which praised Pell for his “dignified and coherent personal testimony” to the Australian Commission.
But the case which raises the most serious questions about the Pope’s record on abuse is Francis’s decision to appoint Bishop Juan Barros as head of the diocese in Osorno, Chile, despite overwhelming evidence that Barros covered up clergy sexual abuse. After major protests rocked the new bishop’s installation ceremony last year, and emotional appeals were made to Francis to reconsider the appointment, there was hope that Francis might replace Barros, and bring peace to the distraught diocese. Not only did the Pope ignore these requests, and stand by the highly controversial bishop, but Francis was caught on video mocking the protestors, calling them “dumb” and suggesting an anti-Catholic conspiracy against Barros was afoot: “Don’t be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this.” The comments were callous and shocking, and totally at odds with the Pope’s normally compassionate and understanding demeanor.
Francis has done many admirable things in his three years as pope, but those of us who have often praised him do him no favors by overlooking his unfulfilled promise of eradicating sexual abuse within the Church, holding those who conceal it accountable, and always supporting its victims. If the Pope does not act swiftly and decisively to reverse the damage he has now done on this issue, all his other good acts will mean little to the victims. Heaven forbid we have to wait for another Oscar winning-film about sexual abuse in the Church before a future Pope finally does confront the issue effectively.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.