Pope Francis’s actions will say more than his words

Christopher Dickey writes: The biggest test for Francis as an inspiring leader for change and renewal – at least in the minds of many Catholics in the United States, Ireland, Belgium and other countries with horrific histories – will be the way he addresses the issue of child abuse by predatory priests and the insidious cover-ups that have protected them even when it meant endangering many more children.

There is no question of dogma here. Official church policy is flatly opposed to child abuse, or course. The problem is that when priests have been the abusers, and there are thousands of cases, Church practice often has been hard to reconcile with its policy.

Symbolically, Francis is off to a bad start. The morning after his election he went to pray at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is the papal basilica in the city of Rome. That would not be controversial, except that the infamous former cardinal of Boston, Bernard Law, is resident there. Law resigned his post in the United States more than ten years ago after the courts reviewed devastating evidence that he knowingly protected criminally abusive priests. His former archdiocese has paid out more than $100 million to settle hundreds of civil suits by the victims.

What Francis said to Law when the two of them met and briefly embraced at the Rome basilica is not known. Some reports in the Italian press said the pope told Law he must retire to a monastery. But Vatican spokesmen flatly denied that.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors’ Network for those Abused by Priests, said Saturday that the encounter between the pope and this known protector of pedophiles was “extraordinarily hurtful.” “If you ignore wrongdoing,” said Clohessy, “you condone wrongdoing.” And if that is the case under Francis, then millions of children will remain at risk from predators in clerical collars. But Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, an exhaustive database of abuse, was, while very cautious, also a little optimistic. She would give Francis “the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Americans can hardly avoid viewing a pope as a religious counterpart to a president, but as much as each represents the concentration of great power in the hands of an individual, the differences are more noteworthy than the similarities.

A candidate for the presidency spends two years or more trying to convince the nation that they, more than anyone else, deserve to occupy the Oval Office. As an exercise in self-aggrandizement and unadulterated egotism, there is no parallel.

If the institution of the pope exceeds that of the president in its pomposity — at least presidents don’t generally claim to represent God — then at the same time, one has to concede that a pope enters office with a certain measure of innocence. It’s not that cardinals necessarily have less inflated egos than would-be presidents, but since no one can predict when a new pope will be selected, even someone who craves the position can’t do much to secure it (bar conspiring to bump off his predecessor).

So, whatever questions linger about Francis’s past or doubts about his intentions for reform, I’d say he’s entitled to a honeymoon. He doesn’t have to prove himself to the press and he doesn’t have something to accomplish within an arbitrarily assigned amount of time — such as his first one hundred days. Big changes should be clearly conceived and well-crafted. Speed is not of the essence.

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2 thoughts on “Pope Francis’s actions will say more than his words

  1. Paul Woodward

    True enough. But institutional reform is by its nature, slow. The faster the change, the less profound it is going to be — the more likely that it will be more PR than substance. The changes the Catholic church need include ending celibacy for the priesthood and ending the exclusion of women becoming priests. The resistance to such major changes can only be overcome gradually. Whether this pope will be bold enough to go in that direction is another question.

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