The existential Pope Francis and the abuse crisis

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

March 9, 2023

By Jason Berry

Addressing the scandal of abuse has been Pope Francis’ greatest challenge, a titanic struggle marked by resistance, failure, and conversion.

 The rainfall stopped minutes before he appeared at the balcony that night 10 years ago, his first time in papal white, the choice of the name “Francesco” another first, cheering Italians for his honouring of their popular saint. On a screen above the crowd at St Peter’s, Francesco purred “Buona sera” and gave a humble bow. 

The deft pastoral symbolism was soon followed by a descent into the snake pit. “The Roman Curia has always been a viper’s nest,” Church chronicler Vittorio Messori told La Stampa the previous spring. What he described as “the most efficient state organisation in the world” was rife with “rivalry, greed, maliciousness and infidelity”. Messori saw the so-called Vatileaks scandal breaking the support structure for “Number One”, as Church diplomats call the Pope. Benedict XVI’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, had leaked private documents to a TV journalist. The historian Alberto Melloni wrote in Corriere della Sera of “an orgy of vendettas and pre-emptive vendettas … spun out of the control of those who thought they could orchestrate it” via an unlikely front man. 

Found guilty at trial and put in a Vatican jail, Gabriele was pardoned by the Pope. Benedict chose three cardinals to report on the vendettas behind the leaks. Their 300-page document, still unpublished, so demoralised the German pontiff that he left it for his Argentine successor to deal with. 

Thus, the tone of Francis’ 2014 Christmas address to the Curia, in which he fumed over a “pathology of power” among those who “feel themselves ‘lords of the manor’ – superior to everyone and everything”. Since his election, his attempt to restructure the Curia, breaking up its fiefdoms and retiring its powerbrokers, has progressed slowly but determinedly.

Francis is an existential pope, scorning “the lie that there is an infinite supply of the Earth’s goods” which “leads to the planet being squeezed dry” (Laudato Si’). Linking the climate revolution to unregulated capitalism and global poverty, promoting the moral rights of migrants, the Pope is fearlessly confronting a radically changing world. At the same time, as Marco Politi wrote in Pope Francis Among the Wolves, “he is engaged in an enormous effort to reshape the Catholic Church”. And, Politi adds: “He does not pretend to determine the exact form it will assume in the end.”

Francis’ greatest challenge has been to take on a criminal sexual underground that is deeply rooted in many parts of the Church’s clerical culture. In the US alone, across two generations now, the traumatic impact of 7,672 proven clergy predators on an estimated  25,000 abuse survivors has devastated the Catholic Church’s moral standing. And the toll for legal fees, victim settlements, jury verdicts and the cost of clergy treatment facilities has reached $10 billion, according to Jack Ruhl, an authority on diocesan finances.

Last week, the Pope released a video dedicated to prayer for the victims of abuse. “Asking for forgiveness is necessary, but it is not enough,” Francis said. Survivors can heal “if they find answers – if there are concrete actions to repair the horrors they have suffered and to prevent them from happening again”.

How well Francis himself has advanced those aims in the 10 years of his pontificate is a complex story of mistakes, personal change, and a titanic struggle with the culture of clericalism he scorns yet cannot escape. His trials suggest a latter-day Isaiah, a voice in the wilderness, raising the core issues of human existence while engaged on a vexing search for “concrete answers” to deep-rooted institutional problems. 

When Francis became Pope in March 2013, dioceses in Ireland, North America and Australia were already the targets of government commissions or prosecutorial grand juries – legal proceedings driven by public outrage over shocking stories of abuse revealed by civil lawsuits and press investigations into attempts by bishops and Religious superiors to cover-up the crimes of priests and monks. Those events of the early 2000s had marked a quantum leap away from the historic deference that police, prosecutors, and courts once gave to local Church leaders. How much Francis initially grasped this seismic legal shift in the northern hemisphere is unclear; the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina and most of Latin America had complex histories under a variety of regimes but had mostly maintained a high status. Abuse litigation in civil courts came much later than in the West.

Cardinal Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio responded to the prosecution of a notorious predator in Buenos Aires with the fortress-Church mentality that typically marked his generation of bishops. It was the start of a choppy evolution on his part. In 2002, a TV investigation aired allegations that Fr Julio César Grassi, the founder of a foundation for homeless boys, had sexually abused five youths. Grassi was indicted on 17 criminal counts. The Argentine bishops’ executive committee (Bergoglio was vice-president) attacked a “campaign” against the Church “before a fair trial”. Their statement echoed the hysteria in some quarters over the media coverage of clergy abuse ignited by The Boston Globe.

Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras (who would become one of Pope Francis’ close advisers) hyperbolically likened the media’s anti-Catholic “persecution” to “the times of Nero and Diocletian, and more recently Stalin and Hitler”. Jesuit Fr Gianfranco Ghirlanda, canon law dean at the Gregorian University, defended bishops for not telling new parishioners of a priest’s past abuse. “The cleric’s right of good name must be protected,” he said.

That mindset clearly influenced Bergoglio as the Grassi case dragged on, taking seven years before coming to trial. Anne Barrett-Doyle, a cofounder of the Boston-based digital archive,, subsequently travelled to Argentina to conduct research. The trial ran for nine months with 130 witnesses. On 9 June 2009, Grassi was found guilty of two acts of aggravated sexual assault and corruption of minors. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Grassi stayed free, pending an appeal. 

“On 20 June 2009, 49 priests and 50 lay-people issued a statement opposing the court’s decision to let Grassi remain free,” BishopAccountability reported. “They also criticised the ‘silence of ecclesial leaders before this case and others’. The signers said, ‘We see that other bishops’ conferences like Colombia’s have spoken up in similar cases, and we do not understand your silence, which has the appearance of ‘hushing up’ and ‘tolerance’.”

Cardinal Bergoglio, as president of the national bishops’ conference, authorised a sweeping investigation into the Grassi prosecution and the three victim-survivors who had lawsuits. The Church hired a criminal defence lawyer and legal scholar; his extensive report said that the court had been wrong. Grassi, it concluded, was the innocent victim of trumped-up accusations. The four-volume dossier, nearly 2,000 pages, was reportedly circulated to judges who had yet to make determinations in the case. The appellate court upheld Grassi’s 15-year sentence in 2013. Grassi remained free on conditional release, at least in part because of the private report commissioned by Bergoglio that sought to prove his innocence and, according to Barrett-Doyle, discredit the victims. Grassi finally went to prison in March 2017, when the Supreme Court of Argentina ratified the initial conviction.

By then, Bergoglio had become Pope Francis. Grassi must have been able to persuade Bergoglio of his innocence. But Barrett-Doyle sees a pattern that extends to a more recent case, that of Argentine bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. In 2016, five priests in the diocese of Oran accused Zanchetta of “authoritarianism, financial mismanagement and sexual abuse at the Saint John XXIII Seminary”, The Guardian reported. Zanchetta appealed to Francis, who gave him a Vatican job while he made trips to Spain for therapy. In March 2022, Zanchetta returned to Oran for trial; he was convicted of the “simple, continued and aggravated sexual abuse” of two seminarians and began a four-year prison term.

Why did Pope Francis put his prestige on the line for Zanchetta? “He’s preoccupied with the evil of gossip,” Barrett-Doyle told me. “He has an inherent suspicion of accusations. I am not sure where this comes from; it could be a reflex acquired during the Dirty War, when soldiers tossed people out of airplanes over mere accusations. Or maybe he’s an autocrat deep down.” Last year, Francis dispatched a canon lawyer to Argentina to investigate the Zanchetta case. 

The Grassi and Zanchetta cases suggest a distrust of secular courts dealing with cases involving priests. As Jesuit superior during the Dirty War, Bergoglio inflamed his own community while trying to stop the regime from snaring activist priests. He admitted his failure in a candid 2013 interview with America, the Jesuit magazine. “I am a sinner,” he said. Austen Ivereigh’s biography The Great Reformer shows the crosswinds he faced, trying to keep two Jesuit priests from being captured and tortured; both were later freed.  In Bergoglio’s List, Nello Scavo reports on his harrowing efforts to help other people escape the tentacles of a regime that murdered 30,000 people.

With democracy restored in Argentina, so in time was constitutional due process. Whatever Francis’ suspicions of state prejudice against the Church, the escalation of abuse cases has driven him to advocate cooperation with criminal prosecutions (while also insisting that “homosexuality is not a crime”). On the trail of change, Francis has also pushed for reforms in canon law. This Solomonic approach to two forms of law, as if splitting the baby, has had ironic blowback.

The Church in English-speaking Western countries is locked in conflict with two pillars of democracy: a court system based on open evidence, and a free press. British common law provides discovery procedures that have unearthed documents which open a viewfinder on structural mendacity: bishops and superiors of Religious orders – translating crimes into sins – lying to victims, lying to parents, and lying to police as they shielded child predators: forgiving the priests and sending them to new assignments, often after treatment of dubious value in therapeutic facilities. In recent decades, as record numbers of men left the priesthood and seminary numbers plummeted, bishops lowered the bar for entry into formation and scrambled to make fixes that allowed priests to find fresh victims. The same storyline marks the more recent explosions of cases in Chile, France, Spain, and Portugal, as state authorities have carved away the privileges of ecclesiastical secrecy.

Like a man slogging through a swamp, seeking terra firma, the Pope has no system of checks and balances, no separation of powers, as in a democracy, to enable swift intervention to prosecute clerics guilty of egregious crimes. His major effort at giving canon law more teeth to defend children and vulnerable adults from predatory clerics came in 2019. Vos Estis Lux Mundi (“You Are the Light of the World”) follows a reform path begun by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2001.

Pope John Paul II’s passivity, his refusal to take proactive steps to address the abuse crisis, threw a generation of bishops, grounded in papal obedience, into freefall. A 1989 request from US prelates for latitude to toss the worst offenders out of the clerical state was stiff-armed by Vatican canonists. A key reason, a canon law scholar in Rome later told me, was that US canonical tribunals were said to “violate grandly – terribly – the annulments on marriage”. He bristled at a national machine that gave divorced Catholics wanting to remarry in church an easy ride. What, I asked, did marriage annulments have to do with paedophiles? He spoke forcefully: “We see what you’ve done with special norms on annulments! What are you going to do with paedophilia cases?”

His granular view of canon law had a point. Few bishops used criminal trials as the code allowed; however, many bishops feared a finding of guilt would be subject to subpoenas in civil lawsuits, and a secret Church trial would be a “smoking gun” that would drive up settlement demands for survivors. Bishops had the power to suspend a priest and gather information, keeping the offender out of ministry while sending the dossier to one of several Vatican tribunals, hoping to eventually oust the sex offender. By 2001, this cumbersome process drove Cardinal Ratzinger to persuade Pope John Paul to consolidate authority over clerics accused of sex abuse in his tribunal at the Congregation – now Dicastery – for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF).
 In 2019, Nicole Winfield of Associated Press reported that between 2004 to 2014, “some 848 priests were defrocked around the world and another 2,572 were sanctioned to lesser penalties, according to Vatican statistics”. The DDF tribunal, she wrote, “has seen a record 1,000 cases reported from around the world this year, including from countries it had not heard from before – suggesting that the worst may be yet to come in a crisis that has plagued the Catholic Church.” The numbers convey a subtler story. With US bishops calling for a “zero tolerance” policy to remove any proven predators, the Vatican tribunal laicised only about a third of the men accused in the files it reviewed. 

In the US, survivors and their attorneys were lobbying state legislatures to open the statutory window, giving more victims a chance of legal redress and a longer lookback window to prosecute sex offenders. Three states with large Catholic populations – New York, New Jersey, and California – have passed such laws. The Archdiocese of New York “will face five thousand claims, based on what I’m told,” says canon lawyer Tom Doyle, a former Dominican priest who has spent many years as an expert witness testifying for survivors.

As the dismal legal saga grinds on, 26 US dioceses and three Religious order provinces have filed for bankruptcy status in recent years, a legal move that allows them to put creditors on hold, while negotiating with lawyers in mass settlement cases for survivors. Bishops in many dioceses have sold Church assets, including commercial property and dormant churches, to raise funds.

At the outset of Francis’ papacy, a royal commission in Australia was sending out subpoenas for Church documents relating to paedophiles. In 2014, Cardinal George Pell, whose callous treatment of survivors had stoked outrage in Australia, won a reprieve as the Pope appointed him prefect of the new Secretariat of the Economy, which Francis hoped would bring order to the Holy See’s balkanised finances. 

Three years later, Pell went back to Australia to stand trial on charges of abusing two altar boys. As he languished in prison for more than a year after the verdict, Francis did not condemn him but waited for Pell’s appeal to play out. When the high court overturned the conviction, Francis welcomed Pell to an honourable retirement in Rome – another sign of his belief in the fraternal value of loyalty within the priesthood and the hierarchy.

In a there’s-gratitude-for-you twist, Pell is now savaging Francis from the grave: he was revealed as the author of an anonymous memo condemning his papacy as a “catastrophe” and a Spectator article published immediately after his death described Francis’ synodal path as a “toxic nightmare”. Pell’s blast from the law-and-order wing of the Church, which prizes orthodoxy, obedience, and wealth, is a far cry from Francis’ view of the Church as “field hospital”. 

Benedict XVI took lots of criticism from the Catholic left; but the denouncements of Francis by Pell and Cardinal Raymond Burke and the reckless charges of Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganò, the embittered former nuncio to the US, who called on the Pope to resign over his handling of the scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, indicate that something very different may be brewing: a schism in the Church.

McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in 2018 after news surfaced that he had abused seminarians. Francis deprived him of priestly status; he ordered an investigation into how McCarrick had evaded Vatican censure for decades and approved the release of the lengthy and comprehensive resulting report, which revealed denial on an epic scale by John Paul II, who made McCarrick a cardinal despite repeated warnings. 

 “Sacking McCarrick sent shockwaves through the clerical world,” says Tom Doyle. “Most people don’t appreciate the momentous nature of a pope removing a bishop, a move that goes against all the theology of apostolic succession” – the idea that bishops stand in a spiritual lineage going back to Jesus’ apostles, a notion that has historically carried a de facto immunity from papal punishment. “Benedict XVI removed three bishops,” continues Doyle. “Francis has removed five I’m aware of. Defrocking a cardinal goes far beyond that in sending a message that no one is above the law.”

The scope of bishops, much less priests, accused of abuse has stretched thin the Vatican system. Under the DDF’s archaic system, canon lawyers review dossiers sent by bishops, without taking testimony from witnesses. The bishop must maintain an accused priest, even one who has cost the Church huge settlement losses, removing his clerical functions under the zero-tolerance policy, while the file goes to Rome for canonists to decide on laicising him, which can take several years. The Vatican scrutinises evidence from state prosecutions or civil lawsuits. A priest in prison is still a priest until the tribunal decides his status.

Bishop Zanchetta’s fate in Argentina, convicted in court, stands out in high relief from that of Joseph Hart, who resigned in 2001 as bishop in Cheyenne, Wyoming, trailed by allegations of sexually abusing youths. Under Vos Estis, a bishop believing a colleague is a perpetrator should engage in “fraternal correction” – in other words, investigate, and send the findings to Rome. Hart’s successor in Cheyenne, Bishop Steven Biegler, did exactly that, while also meeting survivors.

Wyoming prosecutors could not build a criminal case: too many years had passed. But in the Kansas City diocese in Missouri where Hart had earlier been a priest, 11 men and one woman accused him of abusing them as youths. In Wyoming, six people accused him. Restricted by Rome in his ministry, Hart was still a titular bishop. Responding to the documents sent by Biegler, the Vatican ruled that two accusers were not minors (i.e., under the age of 16 according to canon law at the time). 

On that and other technicalities, the evidence failed “to meet moral certitude”. Consequently, Hart was reprimanded for “flagrant lack of prudence” for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, “which could have been potential occasions endangering the obligation to observe continence”. Such contorted language applied to a bishop-in-name-only, who sparked $1.2 million in settlements to six victims in Kansas City, where Hart, 91, lives in retirement.

Anne Barrett-Doyle faults Francis for “the soft landings for credibly accused bishops, if they’ve been disciplined at all. With Vos Estis promulgated just a few months after McCarrick was laicised, Francis has put matters of episcopal discipline back under the cloak of secrecy. Out of the dozens of bishops worldwide accused of complicity or abuse since Vos Estis went into effect, not one has been laicised or even lost his title that we’re aware of.” 

Others see a different narrative. “Pope Francis has over 10 years demonstrated his fallibility and blind spots on the topic,” a Vatican diplomat told me. Vos Estis “comes from a good space in Pope Francis’ heart. He wants to root out injustice and corruption. Objectively he means well and means to help victims of clerical abuse. However, I can understand suspicion about the institutional Church’s ability to self-correct.”

Francis’ personal turning point came in 2018 on a trip to Chile; there, he encountered stormy protests over his appointment, three years earlier, of a bishop, Juan Barros, in a provincial city, Osorno. Barros, as a military chaplain, had defended his mentor, Fernando Karadima, a paedophile with a cult following around his parish in an affluent Santiago neighbourhood. 

The Karadima scandal had been an ongoing media narrative in Chile for several years when Francis called Barros a victim of “calumny”. Juan Carlos Cruz, a journalist whose 2014 memoir about his abuse by Karadima had made him a celebrity in Chile, wondered if Francis had been briefed on Barros, and why he had decided to defend him. In May 2018, Cruz was stunned to receive an invitation, with two other Karadima survivors, to meet Pope Francis.

“The Pope issued a letter saying he’d made grave mistakes and apologised. So, we went.” Cruz stayed a week at Casa Santa Marta, where Francis lives. Several conversations persuaded him that Francis was chastened, “a Pope willing to listen, wanting answers”. Cruz told Francis that he was gay; he was heartened to hear the Pope say that God loved him. “And I love you – be happy and love yourself.” Since then, Cruz has been regularly in touch with Francis, and he is now on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Francis had sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna to Chile to investigate the hierarchy in January. Scicluna, the Maltese canon lawyer who had interviewed victims of Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel and compiled the dossier that caused Benedict to dismiss him in 2006, delivered a 2,300-page report on the Church in Chile. All its 31 bishops submitted their resignations. Francis accepted those of Barros and eight others. Beyond that, for Cruz, the most encouraging sign was Francis’ pendulum shift away from a long-trusted colleague, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Santiago, who was part of the Karadima cover-up.

“I didn’t mince words,” Cruz says of his meetings with Francis. “I wanted him to see me as the norm, not the exception, for survivors. He was open hearted. He told me he’d been enganado, lied to, by bishops, especially Errázuriz, one of his original nine cardinal advisers. He’s like a stain on Chilean memory. Francis got rid of him. I know Errázuriz has tried to rekindle the friendship. Francis wants nothing to do with him.” In 2018, Francis removed Karadima from the priesthood; he died in 2021. 

 Pope Francis’ legacy as a champion of human rights will hinge on how well he advances justice in a Church that so desperately lacks it in dealing with the sex abuse crisis. A Vatican diplomat sees it in being in the “humility to admit error and to correct it and the belief in due process to all who accuse, including false accusers.”

His betrayal by men he once trusted, or believed – fellow prelates such as Pell, Errázuriz and Viganò, and abusers such as Grassi and Zanchetta – suggest that vipers abound on the road ahead. As he continues to push for better remedies and structural reforms, he may find that survivors who experience genuine justice could end up among his most loyal friends.

Jason Berry is a writer, documentary film producer and journalist living in New Orleans. He received the Child USA Hero award for his milestone reporting on the abuse crisis, in Lead Us Not into Temptation (1992). Render unto Rome, on Church finances, won the 2011 Investigative Reporters and Editors Best Book Award. His film on jazz funerals, City of a Million Dreams, based on his recent book, is currently being shown at festival and outreach screenings.