Pope Francis prepares to meet bishops during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 19. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Bob Brehl: Will Vatican meeting lead to real change?

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  • September 24, 2018

Frustrated by the Church’s inability to defuse long-running clergy sex scandals, Pope Francis has summoned the worldwide presidents of Catholic bishops conferences to the Vatican in February to find better ways to protect children and eradicate predatory priests.

Believed to be a first-of-its-kind meeting on Feb. 21-24, can the Pope achieve his goals without first breaking the clerical, elitist, narcissistic culture that has played such a large role in the scandals and coverups?

Francis is walking a dangerous tightrope. Almost from day one of his papacy on March 13, 2013, “traditionalists” have attempted to block papal reforms and Church rejuvenation.

The attacks against Francis from the vocal minority are consistent and becoming more brazen in conservative journals and at conferences. They don’t like the Pope’s leadership and his inclusiveness. For example, his musings that divorced Catholics may be entitled to the Eucharist or his famous line “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuals. They attack his writings about family, the impact of corporate profit over people, the threat of climate change and nuclear weapons, his abhorrence of the death penalty and more.

The latest smear attack comes from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, once the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. Viganò alleges Francis aided in the sex scandal coverup of former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick. He calls for the Pope’s resignation.

After releasing his scathing attack, Viganò slithered into secrecy and is only talking to journalists friendly to the “traditionalist” position. Initially, Francis said he would not give credibility to Viganò’s accusations by taking any questions about them. (Some have already been proven false, including the claim that Francis lifted sanctions against McCarrick shortly after becoming Pope.)

But accusations (whether true or false) harm reputations and have caused much angst in the Vatican, so at the time of writing this column, the Holy See is preparing “necessary clarifications” to the allegations of cover-up and corruption made against Francis and more than 30 past and present senior Vatican officials.   

After years of clergy sex scandals worldwide being exposed, this summer became a tipping point when a grand jury report revealed 301 priests abused thousands of children over a 70-year period in Pennsylvania. Around the time the report detailing disgusting crimes was released, Francis was in Ireland, a country fraught with anti-Church feelings after its own systemic clergy scandals over decades.

In Ireland, Francis met eight survivors of sexual abuse. The pontiff asked forgiveness for the “abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience and sexual abuses” perpetrated by Church leaders over such “repellent crimes.”

Combined with Viganò’s accusations and previous Church apologies, Francis’ Irish appeal may have fallen on deaf ears. So many Catholics are saying “enough is enough” and leaving the Church. I’ve heard far too many denounce going to confession because “why should I tell the guy behind the screen I lied to my wife when who the heck knows what that guy has done?”

The clergy and the Church are reeling. Its moral authority is crumbling.

“This summer has been anything but a church picnic for us. It’s been a disaster, one crisis after another,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last week. “And as I try my best to listen to people, I hear them express very eloquently frustration, bewilderment, anger, confusion. You name it, they got it.”

A body blow for the cardinal was when his elderly mother told him she is ashamed of her Church. “When my mom says — she’s in assisted living — she said: ‘I’m not going out for lunch, I’m kind of embarrassed to be Catholic.’ Boy, when your own mom is saying that…” Dolan said, with the camera capturing the pain in his face.

More and more Church leaders like Dolan are pleading with Catholics to stay and fight for change. There are calls demanding less clericalism and more power given to the laity, especially women.

In The Register last week, Michael Swan reported on a poignant letter from Ontario sex abuse victim John Swales to Pope Francis. Without meaningful change, Swales says, Francis’ promises are empty.

Swales gave Francis three recommendations and the first one aims at using the sex abuse scandals to help diminish the superior, vain culture of clericalism: “First, go straight to the source of pain. Direct non-offending priests and bishops all over the world to go with true humility to ask each person harmed in their parish for forgiveness.”

Interestingly, given what Francis has said and written during his papacy, he no doubt would agree with Swales on that one. It might even be a step — perhaps a leap — towards reducing clericalism and increasing humility. It is this culture of clericalism — “I’m more powerful than you. I’m God’s conduit,” etc — that has played such a horrible role in the abuse crimes.

But that may also be the most difficult thing for Francis to achieve at the February conference. Everyone agrees protecting children is paramount, but there’s a significant and vocal minority who want to protect clericalism, too.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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