A New Pope, A New Beginning for Clergy Child Sex Abuse Survivors? Why It’s Unlikely

Posted in: Other Commentary

The new Roman Catholic Pope, formerly Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name Francis.  It is the first time a Pope has chosen that name, and it is instructive to examine the Francis he intended.  For many in the survivors’ movement, there is an understandable yearning that it is St. Francis of Assisi, but that seems unlikely to me.  Pope Francis is a proud Jesuit, is known as a gifted evangelizer, and is the first Pope from outside of Europe, all of which would make it far more likely that he is choosing the name and path of the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier.

Xavier was known for his extraordinary travels in the 16th Century to multiple countries, and for his proselytizing.  Here is how the Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes his accomplishments:

It is truly a matter of wonder that one man in the short space of ten years (6 May, 1542 – 2 December, 1552) could have visited so many countries, traversed so many seas, preached the Gospel to so many nations, and converted so many infidels. The incomparable apostolic zeal which animated him, and the stupendous miracles which God wrought through him, explain this marvel, which has no equal elsewhere. The list of the principal miracles may be found in the Bull of canonization.  St. Francis Xavier is considered the greatest missionary since the time of the Apostles, and the zeal he displayed, the wonderful miracles he performed, and the great number of souls he brought to the light of true Faith, entitle him to this distinction.

This is the profile of a man who would labor to expand the power and reach of the Church, and would travel the world to do so.  By choosing St. Francis Xavier, the Pope (and likely the conclave as well) are pointing to the global reach of the Church, and the need for outreach and mission work across the globe. By contrast, St. Francis Assisi was a gentle, loving man who venerated poverty and the poverty-stricken; ministered to all beings, including the smallest animals; and was never ordained as a priest.  For the survivors of clergy child sex abuse, he can be a symbol of safety and peace, and, even more importantly, someone who was not a part of the machinery of the Church.  While Pope Francis has been an advocate for the poor in Argentina, he has been very much an insider, who, sadly, was part of the Argentinian Church when it apparently cooperated with the brutal national government of the 1970s.

Jesuits, Their Legacy, and Child Sex Abuse

This is the first Jesuit Pope in history. The Jesuits are a learned order, the members of which take great pride in their intellectual independence.  They have been respected for centuries for their contributions to scholarly and literary debates.  I was impressed with them when they published one of my articles in their magazine, America, even though it was obvious that many bishops were pressuring them not to.  Indeed, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, then-Archbishop of Milwaukee, told me at a legislative hearing in Madison, Wisconsin, on statutes of limitations reform legislation (he testified against; I testified in favor) that he had told them they should not publish the piece.  And yet they still did so.  (I don’t want to get too carried away here, as America did publish a response to my piece in which the California Catholic Conference of Bishops called me a “bitter woman.”)

Regardless, Jesuits are rightly known for being smart, gutsy, and independent.  These are great qualities in a leader, to be sure, and excellent qualities for an institution that desperately needs a new direction and image.

The Jesuits are so highly respected among orders that many believed, when the sex abuse scandal first broke, that this would be the one Order that would not be touched by it.  Not so.  Like every other Order and Diocese, the Jesuits have had their share of serious problems with clergy child sex abuse, and they have shown themselves to be as capable of covering up abuse as any other organization—as this news story, and this one, and this one all attest.

One of the most egregious examples was their failure to stop Fr. Donald McGuire, who abused many children on trips overseas trips.

The selection of Pope Francis, therefore, is hardly free from the sex-abuse scandal.  But no one to be considered was going to avoid it, because the problem is a malignant cancer that has grown on the inside of the Church, which has not yet been able to force itself to undergo the painful, but necessary, therapy to cure it: full disclosure in the context of civil justice for all of the world to see.  Its resistance simply fuels the cancer, and leaves no bishop untouched.

Sex Abuse in Argentina

There is not a lot known about Pope Francis’s dealings with clergy child sex abuse in Argentina, which may have made him the best choice for the job, among others with much longer clergy child sex abuse resumes.  For example, fellow Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri was a top contender, but he was not selected, likely in part due to his close relationship with Cardinal Soldano of Rome, who was deeply involved in the long-term cover up of abuse by the despicable Marcel Maciel.

An equally unpalatable choice would have been the otherwise jovial Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, whose payoffs of abusers in Milwaukee, and steely and heartless opposition to legislative reform to help victims in the Wisconsin and New York legislatures will forever mar his resume.  They all know that he sits on the largest cache of still-secret archives of clergy sex abuse in a single Archdiocese in the United States.

But, of course, there has been abuse in Argentina—as this report evidences.

Unlike top contender Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, who has been an outspoken critic of the Church’s handling of clergy sex abuse, Pope Francis has not distinguished himself by his empathy or concern for the Church’s victims.  The choice of Ouellet would have sent a message to survivors and believers everywhere that the Church had finally put the issue front and center, and was intending to deal with it.  In contrast, this choice seems to be just another stitch in the cloak of secrecy.

When you put together all the pieces of the puzzle, it sadly but not very surprisingly appears that the cardinals chose a leader who is more focused on recruiting and retaining more believers, than he is on righting past (and continuing) wrongs.  They chose evangelization and perpetuation of the institution over cutting out the cancer rotting within the institution.  Can you blame them for that?  Yes, we all can—and should.

But in the end, the choice of a Pope, with its antiquated and secretive rituals, is irrelevant to justice for the victims of clergy child sex abuse.  Justice will only come, as we have learned so well over the years, through secular legal channels, including the prosecution of perpetrators and criminal wrongdoers in every institution; investigations (by prosecutors and the media); lawsuits; and legal reform, especially statute-of-limitations reform.

The American Cardinals will now return to the United States and, in all likelihood, will persist with their heartless fight against legal reform for victims.  And victims will continue to beseech their legislators for a mere chance at justice.  The victims will win in the end, because righteousness is on their side.

5 responses to “A New Pope, A New Beginning for Clergy Child Sex Abuse Survivors? Why It’s Unlikely

  1. Tim Lennon says:

    Protecting children is the responsibility of all. We need to continue enforcing civil laws and oppose the use of religion as a cover/excuse/rationale for keeping child abusers in ministry.

    We can hope the pope takes strong action to throw out the clergy sex abusers and those in the hierarchy who cover for them.
    I appreciate the efforts of professor Hamilton in protecting children.

  2. The Los Angeles Times published this in 2005.

    Argentine Cardinal Named in Kidnap Lawsuit

    April 17, 2005|From Associated Press

    VATICAN CITY — A human rights lawyer has filed a criminal complaint against an Argentine cardinal mentioned as a possible contender to become pope, accusing him of involvement in the 1976 kidnappings of two priests.

    Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s spokesman Saturday called the allegation “old slander.”

    The complaint filed in a court in the Argentine capital on Friday accused Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, of involvement in the abduction of two Jesuit priests by the military dictatorship, reported the newspaper Clarin.

  3. I couldn’t disagree with you more Marci. The consciousness of this planet is way to evolved to accept your version of this. St. Francis of Assisi is much more in alignment with who we are as a global species. We are moving away from the type of control you are speaking of, and becoming more compassionate and loving. Frankly that is the only thing that will save the church period.

  4. Jane Doe says:

    The Vatican already clarified, yesterday, that it is Francis of Assisi. Your argument rests of a false premise so I won’t go on reading it.

  5. Barbara Yoes says:

    Thank you, Marci, for your unfailing intelligence and perseverance in the face of this international, ongoing scandal against the innocents.