Ten terrible years of Pope Francis

UnHerd [London, England]

March 13, 2023

By Damien Thompson

The church has lost all its moral authority

Ten years ago today, on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 13, 2013, the 115 cardinal-electors of the Catholic Church walked up one after the other to a table in the Sistine Chapel to deposit folded ballot papers, only an inch wide, in a silver urn. Each bore the name of the cardinal they wanted to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who had stunned them by his resignation just over a month earlier. It was an anonymous vote, of course, but just to make sure, the cardinals had been instructed to disguise their handwriting.

It was the fifth ballot since Tuesday night, and they knew it would be the last. After that first vote, there was a ripple of surprise when the bookies’ favourite, the scholarly but energetic Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, received 30 votes instead of the anticipated 40. The runner-up, with 26 votes, was the cardinal who came second to Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

Most commentators had written off Bergoglio because he was 76. But, of all the candidates, he seemed the most determined to clear out the filth in the Vatican. The year before, Benedict XVI’s butler had leaked documents revealing the industrial-scale blackmailing of senior clerics with an appetite for gay sex parties and money-laundering. The old pope was not personally implicated, but he clearly didn’t have a clue what to do about it. When he announced that, at 85, he no longer had the strength to do the job, few cardinals doubted that the so-called “Vatileaks” were to blame. Likewise, no one doubted that Bergoglio — who had been a nightclub bouncer before becoming a Jesuit priest — was looking forward to knocking heads together.

On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the horse-trading began, carried out sotto voce during meal breaks and rest periods in the Domus Sancta Marthae, a cross between a five-star hotel and a prison where the cardinals are incarcerated between ballots. By the fourth ballot, the Argentinian Jesuit was unstoppable. The fifth ballot was merely an opportunity for as many cardinals as possible to vote for the winner.

When it was over, 90 out of 115 had backed Bergoglio. The white smoke billowed forth and the bells of St Peter’s rang out to confirm the election (a recent innovation, just in case the accident-prone Vatican sends out black smoke by mistake). The new pope, who had chosen the name Francis after the medieval saint who embraced extreme poverty, walked on to the balcony of St Peter’s minus the traditional gorgeously embroidered stole. His disarming manner sent the crowd into an ecstasy of cheering. The next morning, Francis turned up at the counter of the Domus to pay his bill in person. He rang his newsagent in Buenos Aires to tell him to stop delivering the papers. The media were charmed by these faux-humble stunts.

And so began one of the darkest decades in the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church. The cardinals had been taken for a ride. They had elected a man about whom they knew little: a divisive and intellectually lazy clerical politician.

But that is not the worst of it. The truth — unforgivably obscured by a mainstream media that relies on papal allies for “commentary” on Vatican affairs — is that Francis himself, both before and after his election, has empowered and protected predatory clergy and their accomplices.

No one paid any attention at the time, but one of the cardinals who joined the “humble” new pope on the balcony 10 years ago was the late Godfried Danneels, former Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels. In 2010, shortly after the very liberal Danneels retired, Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges admitted to his former boss that he had been sexually abusing his own nephew. Cardinal Danneels met the victim and, unaware that he was being recorded, told him to shut up about the abuse until the revelation would cause less embarrassment. Police questioned Daneels about the attempted cover-up and raided his offices. The recording was made public and Danneels — who once nurtured ambitions to become pope — was torn to pieces by a Belgian media that had once admired him.

So what was he doing on the balcony with Francis? And why, in 2015, did the Pope invite Danneels, guilty of trying to cover up incestuous abuse of a minor, to a Vatican Synod on the family, of all subjects? I asked the late Cardinal George Pell, who at the time was in charge of reforming Vatican finances. “To thank him for the votes,” replied Pell. Danneels was a member of the so-called St Gallen Mafia of elderly liberal cardinals who lobbied for Bergoglio in 2005 and 20213. In Pell’s mind, at least, rehabilitation was his reward.

Consider, also, the case of Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington, who twisted arms for Bergoglio. It was an open secret in Rome and the US Bishops’ Conference that “Uncle Ted” loved to seduce seminarians. When Benedict XVI discovered this, he banished him to a life of prayer and repentance. As soon as Francis was elected, McCarrick found himself back in favour, travelling around the world as the Pope’s unofficial emissary and fundraiser. Eventually the New York Times revealed that McCarrick was being accused of child abuse, at which point Francis had no choice but to strip him of his title of cardinal. But it should have happened years earlier given that, on becoming Pope, Francis was told that the Vatican had a thick file on McCarrick’s sexual activities.

One of Francis’s first acts as pope was to make his friend Fr Gustavo Zanchetta the Bishop of Orán in northern Argentina despite claims that he was corrupt. In 2017, aged only 53, Zanchetta resigned for “health reasons”. In fact, he had been reported by the Vatican nunciature in Buenos Aires for alleged abuse; in 2015, graphic gay sex images of himself and “young people” had been found on his phone and were reportedly shown to the Pope. (Zanchetta claimed they had been planted.) There were extensive allegations of misuse of funds that led to a raid on his former office by Orán police.

And what did Francis do after Zanchetta resigned? He created a special job for him in the Vatican “assessing” the assets of the Holy See. He would probably still have it if, in 2022, he hadn’t been sentenced to four and half years in jail in Argentina for the sexual assault of two seminarians while Bishop of Orán.

A pattern emerges. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio commissioned a report attempting to exonerate Fr Julio Grassi, who was jailed for molesting residents of his Happy Children homes for street children. As Pope, Francis denied on camera that he sponsored the £1 million secret document. Unfortunately, it bears his name. Fortunately for him, no major English-language media outlet has devoted significant resources to investigating his record of protecting abusers. An ordinary bishop who did these things would almost certainly be made to resign. But no one can be forced to resign the Holy See; indeed, any forced resignation of a pope is automatically invalid.

A succession of disgraceful episodes raise the question of whether Bergoglio should have been allowed to become a small-town priest, let alone spiritual leader of more than a billion people.

In 2018, the Vatican signed a deal with Beijing that handed President Xi Jinping the power to appoint official Catholic bishops. As a result, faithful Catholics are being herded into so-called “Masses” in which the worship of the Chinese Communist Party takes precedence over the worship of God. Lord Alton of Liverpool, the Catholic human rights campaigner, has described the pact on Twitter as “at best naïve and at worst a gross betrayal”. Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, was so appalled that, in 2020, he travelled to Rome to appeal to the Pope to appoint a bishop in Hong Kong who would resist China’s illegal attempts to force its fake Catholicism on the province. The 88-year-old Zen asked for just half an hour with the Pope. Francis refused to see him. Moreover, he has never condemned his Chinese allies’ genocidal campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs, which includes forcing their women to have abortions.In the United States, meanwhile, Francis seems to have a policy of insulting orthodox Catholics by only awarding cardinal’s hats to bishops with divisive liberal views. Last year, for instance, he made Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego a cardinal, yet again refusing to honour Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, a theologically conservative but politically neutral figure who had the temerity to draw attention to Joe Biden’s fanatical support for abortion on the day of his inauguration.

McElroy’s elevation to the college of cardinals was especially provocative. In 2018, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington was forced to resign when his clergy refused to believe his claim that he knew nothing about the sexual activities of his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick. Francis planned to replace Wuerl with McElroy, who was also a McCarrick protege — but such a move would have provoked open revolt in Washington. Hence the huge and unprecedented consolation prize of a red hat for the Bishop of San Diego, which has enabled McElroy to join Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, and Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, in the club of Francis-appointed cardinals who were once close to McCarrick.

Curiously, although McCarrick had once been a notoriously predatory Archbishop of Newark, his successor Cardinal Tobin said he didn’t believe any of the stories about him — until the truth emerged. Cardinal Farrell was McCarrick’s auxiliary in Washington, shared an apartment with him, but never suspected a thing. The future Cardinal McElroy, meanwhile, was informed by the late clerical abuse expert Richard Sipe in 2016 that McCarrick was a serial abuser. He took no action. And, to spell it out, these three cardinals — Farrell, Tobin and McElroy — are crucial allies of Francis “the Reformer”.

There is a chance, however, that Francis will regret the elevation of Bob McElroy. The Pope’s biggest headache at the moment is his pet project, absurdly entitled the Synod on Synodality, that Francis intended to push the Church surreptitiously in a liberal direction. What has happened instead is that the ultra-liberal German Church has gone full Protestant on Francis, using what it calls the “Synodal Way” to turn itself into a version of the Church of England. Last week, it voted to allow gay blessings in church.

Meanwhile, McElroy has taken a huge risk, calling for a “radical inclusion” of LGBT couples that would enable them to receive Holy Communion, a move that Francis does not support. This provoked Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, to accuse America’s most recent cardinal of heresy. Even the Pope’s most fervent supporters are worried. If the Catholic Church in the United States, Germany and other liberal European countries falls apart in the chaotic manner of the now-defunct Anglican Communion, then history will blame Pope Francis — not necessarily for sowing the seeds of secularisation, but for his theologically incoherent thrashing about in the throne of Peter.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Latin Mass. Francis’s suppression of this ancient liturgy is losing him friends even among liberal bishops, who now find themselves forced to themselves forced to carry out witch-hunts on behalf of the Pope’s thuggish liturgy chief, Arthur Roche, another wildly unsuitable recipient of a red hat.

Let me leave you with this disgusting paradox. Earlier this month, the Pope’s Jesuit friend Fr Mark Rupnik, a celebrity mosaic artist, was allowed to concelebrate Mass publicly. Meanwhile, claims that he grotesquely abused women have not been fully investigated because Francis refuses to lift the relevant statute of limitations.

At the same time, faithful priests have been expelled from churches where they offered the traditional Mass and now are forced to do so in church halls and basements. They represent the only community of Catholics that is growing in the 21st century, and the Pope is literally driving them underground.Ten years after that catastrophic vote in the Sistine Chapel, we have reached a moment of extreme crisis in the life of the Church. Francis is tightening his control of the Vatican’s machinery, with no plans to retire. A new pope would have been nice – a couple of years ago. Now I think it’s too late. The church may never recover its moral authority.