Jan 30, 2019

From Spotlight to "Year of Hell" for Vatican

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.



I'm not really sure why I binged Catholic abuse stories over the holidays. What sort of dark compulsion caused me to immerse myself in The Keepers and Spotlight, both of which had been languishing on my Netflix queue for over a year, I can't say. I hadn't been able to bring myself to watch them, knowing exactly the kind of emotional turmoil would be churned up. But on those cold, December days they called to me, then pulled me in like the undertow of an icy river. It was sickening but necessary viewing. Perhaps it was a need for catharsis at the end of a year that had seen one ugly eruption after another in the priestly abuse saga, events that have seriously tarnished a popular and likable pope. Both the movie and the true crime series are excellent, for what it's worth. The progress of the Catholic Church is not.

I really had hope that Pope Francis would be different than his predecessors. Yet, on this issue, he seems to have even less understanding of the seriousness than Benedict XVI. The past year has been marked by tone-deaf pronouncements, 180° reversals, high profile resignations, and troves of embarrassing documents. It's hard to believe that seventeen years after the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team exposed the priestly abuse cover-ups and forever changed the world's perceptions of the Catholic Church, new waves of scandal could keep finding the Church so far behind the curve. How have they managed to learn so little from so much? Amazingly 2018 may have eclipsed 2002 as a year of horrible revelation.

A prominent cardinal resigned in disgrace. Grand jurors accused hundreds of Catholic clerics of secretly abusing children. A former Vatican ambassador urged the Pope himself to step down.

It was enough for New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan to call it the Catholic Church's "summer of hell."

The cardinal may have been overly optimistic.

In fact, the church's hellish year began in January, when Pope Francis forcefully defended a Chilean bishop he had promoted. He later had to apologize and accept the bishop's resignation.

But the clergy sex abuse scandal shows no signs of abating, with a federal investigation and probes in 12 states and the District of Columbia in the works.


And let's be clear. Pope Francis didn't just defend the Chilean bishop. He accused sex abuse survivors of "calumny" for accusing Bishop Barros of a classic church cover-up, only to demand the bishop's resignation when those charges proved accurate. As the year wore on, Pope Francis offered a full-throated apology for his failings and took an increasingly aggressive stand against abusive priests, culminating in his December demand that they turn themselves in to the authorities.

Pope Francis is urging predator priests who have raped or molested children to turn themselves in "to human justice, and prepare for divine justice," devoting part of his Christmas message to the abuse scandals that he said have undermined the Catholic Church in 2018.

As cardinals and other church luminaries listened in the Vatican's ornate Clementine Hall on Friday, Francis also compared priests who break their vows to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ.

. . .

While acknowledging that the Vatican has made serious mistakes, Francis told the gathering: "The sins and crimes of consecrated persons are further tainted by infidelity and shame; they disfigure the countenance of the church and undermine her credibility."

The church, Francis said, "will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes."

If only he'd said all that years ago, rather than as a delayed reaction a public relations disaster engulfing the Vatican. But delay seems to be the Church's watchword, when it comes to this crisis.

Faced with a sexual-abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church in multiple continents, the Vatican has opted to delay taking action.

The surprise decision was announced Monday [November 12, 2018] at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, where church leaders were expected to vote on several measures to address sexual abuse by the clergy, including a new code of conduct and creation of a special commission to review complaints against bishops.

Instead, the Vatican asked that they hold off on voting until after a February gathering with bishops from around the world convened by Pope Francis to deal with the growing scandal.

Having deferred action until the February summit, Pope Francis is now managing expectations for what will be accomplished there.

Francis told reporters returning from Panama on Sunday that he wants the Feb. 21-24 meeting to essentially be a catechism class for bishops about sex abuse. He said he wanted to sensitize church leaders around the globe to the pain of victims, instruct them how to investigate cases and develop general protocols for the entire hierarchy to use.

"Let me say that I've sensed somewhat inflated expectations," he said. "We have to deflate the expectations to these three points, because the problem of abuse will continue. It's a human problem."

Francis' lowering of expectations will likely not go over well in the United States, where rank-and-file Catholics are withholding donations and demanding accountability from their bishops after the hierarchy's repeated failures to protect children were exposed again last year.

A "human problem" sounds too much like same old deflection we've been hearing from Church officials for years. Of course sex abuse is a wider problem. But the issue is and always been, not so much the crime, but the cover-up. And even now they refuse to come clean on their culpability for protecting clergy at the expense of children.

Pope Francis himself has been accused of enabling a decades long cover-up of the since removed cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The pontiff later admitted that he was secretly investigating McCarrick, who has been left to live out his days in quiet contemplation. It's the continuing secrecy that baffles and infuriates. What is not secret is that McCarrick preyed on young seminarians for decades and even molested an altar boy in the confessional.




One of the more dramatic moments in Spotlight comes when the team learns from a former priest that they are wildly underestimating the number of abusive priests in Boston. Their pursuant investigation proves that the higher number is, indeed, correct. But the Church, even now, keeps claiming it's just a few "bad apples." A grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania has, once again, proved otherwise. The numbers are staggering, over 300 priests abused over a thousand children, and that's the lowball figure. But the worse news for the Church is that the Pennsylvania revelations have spurred, not only many more states to open investigations, but the first federal investigation. Illinois found that the Church had concealed accusations against 500 priests. In January, more than a thousand abusive priests had been identified around the country. This is undoubtedly just the beginning.

As these numbers climb and more horrifying details emerge, discouraged Catholics are going to need more than eloquent apologies and vague promises. They're going to need more than scolded bishops and endorsements of more prayer. They're going to need to see real action and clear policy. Pope Francis does not appear to have the stomach for it. It may be the end of his papacy. It may be the end of his Church.

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