Editorial: The Guardian view on papal infallibility: an authoritarian U-turn

The Guardian
May 22, 2018

Pope Francis arranged to meet both bishops and survivors after the abuse scandal in Chile.
Photo by Pierpaolo Scavuzzo

Popes rarely admit their own mistakes. But Pope Francis has now done so, spectacularly, in a case of child abuse

Popes hardly ever pronounce infallibly: in fact they have only ever done so twice; on the other hand it is almost as rare that they admit to making mistakes. Last week all 34 bishops of the Roman Catholic church in Chile sent in their resignations to Pope Francis after he got the report of an investigation into the hierarchy’s attempts to suppress a child abuse scandal there. That’s shocking enough, if not entirely unprecedented: in 1801 Pope Pius VII demanded, and got, the resignation of all the French bishops as part of his deal with Napoleon. What may not ever have happened before is for a pope to admit to freely and so publicly that he himself had been wrong on a matter of great importance. Only five months ago the pope had been outspoken in defence of the bishops.

The church in Chile had been badly damaged, like many others, by sex abuse scandals. A powerful and charismatic priest, Fr Fernando Karadima, preyed for years on young men and boys from the country’s elite. He was protected by Fr Juan Barros. Pope Francis appointed Fr Barros a bishop in 2015, three years after Fr Karadima had been removed from public ministry by the Vatican when the criminal case against him collapsed. This appointment was furiously protested by both laity and clergy, but the pope doubled down on his visit to Chile this year, describing the allegations against Bishop Barros as “slander”, and being photographed embracing him. This led to even greater and more outraged protests around the world so Pope Francis sent the Maltese archbishop Charles Scicluna to investigate the story. Archbishop Scicluna served for many years as the Vatican’s chief prosecuting counsel in child abuse cases, and the 2,300 page report he delivered to the pope was the result of interviewing 64 people.

The result was electrifying. First, Pope Francis apologised. “I have made grave errors in assessment and perception of the situation, especially as a result of lack of information that was truthful and balanced,” he wrote. Then he arranged to meet both bishops and survivors. The most prominent survivor, Juan Carlos Cruz, emerged from several hours alone with Pope Francis to say he’d been told by the pope: “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay. God made you that way and that is the way he wants you to be, and I don’t mind … you have to be happy with who you are.” This may not be a verbatim quote but neither has it been denied. The bishops got the other side of the pope’s tongue. He summoned them all to Rome, where he told them that the Scicluna report showed “a series of absolutely reprehensible acts … unacceptable abuses of power, of conscience and sexual abuse”. Shortly thereafter they all offered him their resignations.

This is good. Will it be enough? The Irish campaigner against sexual abuse, and survivor, Marie Collins, has suggested that it doesn’t go far enough: if the bishops are allowed to resign but none are punished further, they will have got away too lightly, she argues. There needs to be a proper disciplinary process as well. The sex abuse scandals were not confined to Chile. In Australia, the archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, has just been found guilty of covering up the activities of a paedophile priest in the 1970s. The former number three man in the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell, goes on trial in Melbourne this summer on charges of historic sexual abuse. He protests his innocence, and the Vatican has supported him. If he were to be found guilty, it would pose the greatest challenge yet to Pope Francis’s willingness to change his mind when the facts change.


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