December 23, 2018
Pope Francis has excoriated his enemies in the church. Is this a sign of weakness, or of strength?
Pope Francis gives an annual Christmas speech to his civil service in the Vatican and he wastes none of it on praising them. From his very first condemnation of their gossip, pride, and “spiritual Alzheimer’s” in 2014 he has found faults to pick with parts of the Roman Catholic church. This year, it was the turn of sexual abuse, a subject on which he has himself been squarely in the wrong before. As if making up for lost time, he gave one of the most ferocious denunciations of his own church’s past, and promised concrete measures and a new start. He even praised the journalists who brought these scandals to light, in the teeth of ecclesiastical denial and obstruction. He demanded that any priests guilty of abuse hand themselves over to the civil authorities, and prepare to face the justice of God as well. This is all excellent stuff and only about 20 years late.
The great problem for the church this century has not been the exposure of contemporary abuse so much as the exposure of the cover-ups of past abusers. Francis himself has been accused by his enemies of protecting a notorious abuser, Theodore McCarrick, once a powerful figure in the US church, whom he sacked as a cardinal in the summer. In fact, Mr McCarrick was the beneficiary of a long-standing Vatican policy of promoting effective fundraisers, and owed most of his rise to the sainted John Paul II. But several US states have published lists of hundreds of men credibly suspected of historic offences, but protected by bishops in the past; Francis’s own order, the Jesuits, is to engage in a similar reckoning with its past.
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