Pope Francis Struggles to Escape Scandals of 2019

Wall Street Journal

January 3, 2020

By Francis X. Rocca

Pope Francis ended 2019 in embarrassment when he angrily slapped the hand of a woman who had pulled on his own while he was greeting pilgrims on New Year’s Eve. He began 2020 with a public apology for losing his patience and setting a “bad example.”

It was a fitting coda to a year in which the pope addressed one scandal—the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis—only to become embroiled in another, over the Vatican’s murky finances.

Pope Francis entered last year near the low point of his pontificate. In 2018, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston chided him for insensitivity to sex-abuse victims, the pope admitted to “grave errors” in handling clerical sex abuse in Chile, and his former envoy to the U.S. accused him of ignoring sexual misconduct by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington. The year 2018 ended with an Australian court convicting the pope’s finance chief, Cardinal George Pell, of sexual abuse of children.

During 2019, Pope Francis responded by rolling out high-profile initiatives on combating sexual abuse, beginning with the defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick, the first cardinal to receive such a punishment in modern times.

Over succeeding months, the pope convened a global summit on sex abuse, tightened the laws against abuse within Vatican City State and unveiled new legislation making it easier to discipline bishops who abuse or cover up abuse. In December, he relaxed the secrecy rules for church documents relating to abuse, which advocates for victims said could make it easier for church officials to cooperate with police and prosecutors.

The new rules for bishops and the lifting of the so-called pontifical secret were “very good moves toward greater accountability and transparency, but it’s the application that matters,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Service and author of “Inside the Vatican.”

“The church has thousands of bishops all over the world,” who will require vigilance “to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said.

Some important issues regarding sex abuse remain unresolved.

The Vatican still hasn’t released a long-promised report explaining how Mr. McCarrick rose to power despite widespread rumors of his misconduct going back years. Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a longtime protégé of Pope Francis, is facing charges of sexual harassment in their native Argentina. He denies the charges. And if Australia’s high court declines to overturn Cardinal Pell’s conviction on his final appeal—after he has already begun serving a six-year sentence—the pope will have to decide whether to discipline a prelate who was one of his most important aides.

Meanwhile, a new shadow has fallen over the pope, who was elected in 2013 with a mandate to overhaul the Vatican’s finances and administration.

“We are seeing the practically complete failure of the attempts at cleansing, reform and transparency with regard to Vatican finances,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine. Last year “brought the fall of the myth of Francis as the purifying pope.”

The Wall Street Journal revealed in September a gaping budget deficit at the Holy See. The pope had instructed Vatican officials to address the deficit as an urgent problem that imperiled the future of the Holy See, which consists of the Catholic Church’s central administration and the papal diplomatic network abroad.

The Journal also revealed in December that the bulk of the pope’s world-wide annual charity collection wasn’t going to the poor but being used to plug the Vatican’s budget deficit.

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