VATICAN CITY (RNS) As the Vatican reeled from news that one of its top officials was taking a leave to fight historical sex abuse charges in Australia, the spotlight quickly turned to Pope Francis, with his critics slamming him for failing to do enough to tackle the vexing issue.
Cardinal George Pell, the most senior figure in church history to face child sex abuse charges, is the Vatican’s financial czar and a trusted adviser to the pope.
Pell, 76, is facing “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences,” said police in the Australian state of Victoria.
“I am looking forward to my day in court,” Pell told a packed media conference Thursday (June 29). “I am innocent of these charges. They are false.”
READ: Cardinal George Pell takes a leave of absence after sex assault charges
His controversial case has unleashed a wave of criticism from survivor groups and commentators who say the pope has not done enough to root out predators and protect children.
“There is a deep disconnect between the pope’s words and his actions,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the advocacy group Bishop Accountability.
Barrett Doyle was critical of the pope for keeping Pell in his post until now, despite knowledge of the allegations against him.
“The pope is not a reformer when it comes to the crisis,” she said. “He apologizes often and uses buzz phrases like ‘zero tolerance.’ But underneath he remains the minimizer and the defender of accused priests.”
Robert Mickens, an American editor for the French Catholic magazine La Croix, said it was significant that Pell had stepped aside but he criticized the pope’s record on clerical abuse.
“Whether Pell specifically asked for a leave from his Vatican duties to return for the trial, or whether the pope ordered him to do so, the effect is the same. And it is a development from the past,” Mickens said, when the church would have defended Vatican churchmen.
But Mickens said Francis has never made the church’s sexual abuse crisis a priority of his administration.
“It took him more than a year after his election as bishop of Rome before he even mentioned it,” said Mickens, a longtime Vatican commentator. “I think a major reason for that is his experience as a bishop in Latin America, where the issue has not been dealt with openly or effectively.”
After his election, Francis established a Vatican panel for the protection of minors to change church practices and increase awareness about abuse and education in the church.
But survivor Peter Saunders was forced to take a leave of absence from the panel after scathing criticism of Pell. Irish survivor Marie Collins resigned in disgust in March over what she called “shameful” obstruction within the Vatican.
The charges against one of his closest advisors and the architect of his economic and administrative reforms of the Holy See is not only embarrassing for the pope but brings the church abuse scandal to his door.
Paddy Agnew, an Irish commentator who has followed the Vatican for 30 years, said Francis’ record on rooting out predators is mixed.
Agnew said Francis acted quickly to remove Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who was accused of sex crimes against minors in the Dominican Republic. Wesolowski died in 2015 before he was tried for child pornography.
“On the other hand, sex abuse survivors and lobbyists argue that Francis has been shamefully irresponsible in defending Chilean Bishop Juan Barros,” said Agnew.
Barros has been accused of covering up clerical abuse in Chile in the 1980s and 1990s.
There is no doubt there has been some change under Francis. He has spoken out many times against clerical sexual abuse and late last year he urged bishops around the world to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy.
“I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst,” he said in a letter to them.
This month, the pope defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex crimes by an Italian court a year ago.
But Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, had initially defrocked Inzoli in 2012 after he was first accused of abusing minors. Francis reversed that decision in 2014, ordering the priest to stay away from children before finally coming to the conclusion that the priest could no longer continue in his duties.
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The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has urged the pope to send Pell home as soon as possible and hoped the Australian investigation would inspire other countries to do more.
“Sexual abuse thrives when it is allowed to flourish in secrecy,” said SNAP spokeswoman Joelle Casteix in a statement.
In the past, the Vatican, as a sovereign state in the heart of Rome, offered officials immunity from prosecution.
In the early 1980s, it refused an Italian request to hand over Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, an American who was wanted for questioning about the fraudulent bankruptcy of a private Italian bank.
And Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston escaped potential prosecution when he moved to Rome after the sex abuse scandal erupted in his diocese in 2002.
Pell, it appears, was not offered that option.