Over the weekend, I read that Pope Francis is backtracking on pedophile priests, trimming their sentences and showing them "mercy." I was saddened. I am not Catholic. I have never particularly "liked" a pope, but there is much about this one that I admire. I like that he takes his vows of poverty seriously. I like his compassion for the poor and disenfranchised. I like that, although he has not significantly changed Church policy on LGBT issues, he has urged compassion and lack of judgment. I have not cared for his stance on women in the priesthood and I have not been impressed with the pace or tenor of his approach to the sex abuse crisis. So when I saw these words, my heart sank.
Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope’s own advisers question.
Worse, his leniency has already backfired, according to the article.
One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope’s clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.
But the more I read, and I read several articles, the less substantive this story seemed to be. The new charges against Rev. Inzoli appeared to come from new information, not from re-offense. In fact, there is no evidence that these changes have put any children at risk.
And then there's this:
Many canon lawyers and church authorities argue that defrocking pedophiles can put society at greater risk because the church no longer exerts any control over them. They argue that keeping the men in restricted ministry, away from children, at least enables superiors to exert some degree of supervision.
This has long been a concern of mine. The most extreme punishment the church can mete out is laicization. Absent criminal prosecution – much of which relies on jurisdictional and statute of limitation issues – defrocking only turns these predators loose on the public. One such case was Ken Kiesle, who was thankfully caught by law enforcement eventually, but not before he'd raped more children.
So that argument makes sense to me. It also makes sense to the National Catholic Reporter, whose reporting and commentary on the sex abuse crisis has been stellar.
Francis, and the church he leads, should never, ever apologize for asking where the mercy is in any given situation, even in this horrific one, but I suspect he is astute enough to realize that there is nothing merciful in putting a priest abuser into a situation where he can perpetrate his crimes anew.
And that is my problem with Winfield's story. It rests on the assumption that removal from the clerical state, or defrocking, is a more just, and less merciful, penalty. She has sources who tell her so, apparently even some with intimate knowledge of the workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles these cases. They told Winfield that in some cases, the congregation recommended defrocking an abuser, and the pope offered clemency in the form of a sentence of a lifetime of prayer and penance and no public ministry.
. . .
The key objective is to prevent further abuse. If a priest is defrocked, he is cut loose. I can see why a diocese might wish to be rid of the problem, but say there is a priest who is defrocked because a church investigation found credible evidence of abuse, but there were no criminal proceedings. What is to prevent the abuser from applying for a job that puts him in proximity to children?
The NCR piece goes on to speculate that this story may have been motivated by internal Vatican politics and an attempt to damage this unusually progressive pope.
There are still major questions about the proactivity of the Vatican on sex abuse cases and an as yet unclear vision from Pope Francis on how to hold abusive priests and the Bishops, who are supposed to oversee them to account.
Francis scrapped the commission’s proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission’s other major initiative — a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children — is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops’ conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.
But a Church that shows mercy to priests – while protecting children from them – is preferable to me over a Church that dumps the problem on an unwitting public.