Will Pope Francis Move the Church from Token Words to Real Action on Sex Abuse?

By Rich Barlow
June 5, 2014

Pope Francis prays during a meeting with faithful at Rome's Olympic Stadium, Sunday, June 1, 2014. Pope Francis has led a pep rally to boost faith at Rome's soccer stadium, packed with more than 50,000 Catholics who follow charismatic movements. (Riccardo De Luca/AP)

Is Pope Francis really zeroing in on “zero tolerance” for clerical pedophiles and their episcopal enablers?

The pontiff’s recent declaration to that effect brought headlines but no action against abusers, critics said. Their despair is premature; Francis wouldn’t be the first leader who temporized before doing something that had to be done. Think of Lincoln, who vexed abolitionists by waiting two years after his election before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Or Franklin Roosevelt, who promised a balanced budget in his first presidential campaign, wising up once in office and siding with damn-the-deficit New Dealers. (If you think it profane to analogize the Vatican to crass politics, you haven’t been reading the news.)

[Critics'] despair is premature; Francis wouldn’t be the first leader who temporized before doing something that had to be done.

Francis’s comments followed a harsh United Nations report, the second this year, on the Vatican’s management of abuse. Like Lincoln and FDR, he will have to back his words with deeds — more than just celebrating Mass with some abuse victims, which he also announced during an in-flight press conference last month. He further told reporters that the Vatican is investigating three unidentified bishops on sex abuse-related issues; he didn’t say whether the trio are alleged molesters themselves or suspected of concealing abuse, a practice among some mitered miscreants with which we’re sadly familiar.

Factor in Francis’s demonstrated compassion and his creation of an advisory panel on abuse — including Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who won kudos for his handling of abuse cases — and there’s reason to hope this pope will follow through with publicizing credibly accused abusers and punishing bishops who covered up for them. Those reasonable demands come variously from victims’ advocates and even some Catholic traditionalists. Perhaps some names on this scandal will serve as markers for assessing the pope. Here are three clerics, named in the U.N. report, whose cases will be instructive as to whether the church has learned the tragic lessons of its past sins:

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, papal envoy to Australia. Last year, he relied on diplomatic immunity to deflect document demands from a commission probing sex abuse. The Vatican contends that is has no legal authority to enforce child protection outside of Vatican City. But it does have moral and canonical authority with parishes globally, and Pope Francis is famous for picking up the telephone to directly advise people spiritually. Has Archbishop Gallagher’s secretary ever had occasion to tell him, “The pope’s on line 2”?

The Rev. Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul. Accused of forcing a Minnesota teenaged girl into oral sex in 2004, Jeyapaul is in India, from which the United States is trying to extradite him. He denied the charges in a 2010 interview with The New York Times. He also said he was ready to return here and defend himself. That was four years ago. The Times’s story, noting the conflicting accounts from Jeyapaul’s church supervisor in India, said with prescient understatement, “The Vatican’s policy of deferring to local bishops may also leave it open to criticism that it is not acting aggressively enough.” You think?

[Francis] will have to back his words with deeds — more than just celebrating Mass with some abuse victims…

Archbishop Josef Wesolowski. He was the papal envoy to the Dominican Republic. That is, until he was recalled last year. Dominican Republic authorities accuse him of sexual abuse there, but so far, he is being sheltered by the Vatican, which has rebuffed extradition attempts while saying it is investigating him.

The U.N. report credits the Vatican such positive steps as defrocking 848 priests between 2004 and last year for sex abuse. Overall, however, the report found too many instances like the three cases above. Francis, a media-savvy man, surely knows that when it comes to public (and Catholics’) opinion about his management of this tragedy, the sages advice is from scripture: By their fruits you will know them.








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