On the most explosive and morally subversive challenge facing the Roman Catholic Church — clerical sexual abuse of children, and the bishops who tolerate it — Pope Francis has said the right things but done too little. Even now, 15 years after the explosive revelations of church complicity in enabling and covering up the predations of U.S. priests who damaged so many young lives, not a single bishop has been explicitly held accountable and stripped of his title.
The pope’s sluggish, inadequate and compromised stance in the face of this outrage is the subject of a new book, “Lust,” by a respected Italian journalist, Emiliano Fittipaldi. The book, published last week, is an indictment not just of a papal policy that has failed to live up to its ringing promises about “zero tolerance” for clerical sexual abuse, but of Francis’s papacy.
Fittipaldi reveals that the pace of complaints about sexual abuse filed with the Holy See has been virtually unchanged in the nearly four years since Francis became pope, compared with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who was deservedly condemned for his inaction. More damningly, the book details repeated instances where church officials implicated in allegations of abuse and coverups were promoted, often to top positions in the church’s sprawling hierarchy.
One example is Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, former archbishop of Santiago, Chile, elevated by Francis to the elite, nine-member Council of Cardinal Advisers, a sort of papal kitchen cabinet in Rome. Errázuriz has long been accused of ignoring accusations of sexual abuse against a priest under his jurisdiction.
Another is Cardinal George Pell, formerly an Australian bishop, who serves as the Vatican’s top finance official. He has long been accused of having shrugged off pedophilia among priests during his time in Australia. When questioned about it last year by an investigative commission in his home country, he fell back on the old canard about the church being no better or worse than society at large, a facile formulation often used by Vatican officials to avoid any admission of the church’s ingrained pattern of institutional complicity.
The pope himself has made some strong statements about clergy sex abuse and taken a few symbolic steps to underscore his compassion for victims, in one case meeting with victims of sexually abusive priests in Philadelphia. But his deeds to establish real accountability have been hollow. He tried and failed to establish a special tribunal to hold negligent bishops accountable, then issued a decree saying it was unnecessary since the Vatican already was empowered to remove them from office if they turned a blind eye to sex abuse in their dioceses.
Now, seven months later, there is little indication that bishops, the church’s princelings, are truly being held to account. Without that, the pope’s words are like puffs of smoke.