By the Editorial Board
On his plane back to Rome from a Middle East trip recently, Pope Francis acknowledged that the Vatican faces pushback in its efforts to overhaul the Catholic Church’s habits of denial, secrecy and coverup surrounding clerical sexual abuse. “There are people within the church who still do not see clearly,” he said, adding that “not everyone has courage.”
The pontiff’s delicate phrasing, and his timing, underscored the compounding damage the scandal has inflicted on the church’s moral authority and prestige. Days after Pope Francis shared those thoughts with journalists, new revelations of high-level sexual misconduct and coverup in France shattered illusions of progress by the church toward establishing a culture of transparency and accountability in its hierarchy.
That problem was crystallized in the admission by Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who was the archbishop of Bordeaux for 18 years before he retired in 2019, that he had behaved “in a reprehensible way” with a 14-year-old girl 35 years ago when he was a parish priest. The news was made more astonishing by the fact that Cardinal Ricard served as president of the Bishops’ Conference of France from 2001 to 2007, even as revelations of clerical sexual abuse rocked the church — first in Boston, then throughout dioceses in the United States and worldwide. Yet the prelate continued exercising his authority as one of the French church’s most prominent figures. He is now being investigated by French prosecutors in Marseille for “aggravated sexual assault.”
The cardinal’s public confession followed last month’s disclosure that another prelate, Michel Santier, 75, had been removed as bishop of Creteil, near Paris. The fact that he had been disciplined, after allegations that he had abused young adults decades ago, was overshadowed by the church’s silence on the matter. It had said nothing about the accusations or action taken against him until they were reported by the French media in October. He is now also under investigation by prosecutors.
Pope Francis has said there is no turning back from “irreversible” steps designed to enhance safeguards against clergy child sexual abuse and has said the church has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward offenders in the priesthood and the hierarchy. His push for reforms has featured broadening the church’s definition of sexual crimes, requiring nuns and priests to inform their superiors of abuse allegations, holding bishops and other prelates to account for their handling of instances of abuse, and empowering the Vatican’s own commission that deals with cases of sexual abuse, elevating its status and clout.
Yet the ongoing evidence of years-long silence in cases involving senior prelates and others in the hierarchy points to the internal institutional foot-dragging that Pope Francis acknowledged. So does the attitude of the church hierarchy in many poor countries, where the scandals of the past two decades are widely regarded as mainly a Northern Hemisphere problem, and little information has been made public about sexual abuse cases.
Pope Francis’s record is mixed on the greatest scandal to envelop the church in centuries. His forthrightness on the issue is admirable, but ultimately he, and the church, will be judged on the tangible progress they have made.
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