Clergy & Congregations Ethics Law & Court Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis’ blind spot on sexual abuse

Pope Francis talks with journalists during his flight from Lima, Peru, to Rome on Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino; caption amended by RNS)

(RNS) — The overwhelming consensus in the media is that Pope Francis has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse.

He may be on the side of refugees, migrants, the sick, the poor, the indigenous and other marginalized peoples, but he just doesn’t get it when it comes to victims of abuse.

The evidence for this assertion is the pope’s unwavering support for the Rev. Juan Barros, whom he appointed bishop of Osorno, Chile, despite accusations from victims that he witnessed and covered up abuse by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, the charismatic priest who in 2011 was found guilty by the Vatican of abusing minors in his upscale Santiago parish.

In a leaked letter to the Chilean bishops, Francis defended his January 2015 appointment of Barros to Osorno. Francis acknowledged that the Vatican was so concerned about the crisis in Chile that it planned to ask Barros, who was the bishop for the military, and two other bishops to resign and take a sabbatical. Despite these concerns, Francis appointed Barros anyway.

Francis’ defense of Barros has been excessive, accusing his detractors of calumny and being leftist agitators. He said he would not believe the accusations until he was given proof.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley publicly corrected the pope’s words:

It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile, were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.

Francis accepted O’Malley’s criticism and apologized for saying the victims need to show “proof” to be believed. But he continued to say that anyone who made accusations against the bishop without providing evidence was guilty of slander.

“I can’t condemn him because I don’t have evidence,” Francis said. “But I’m also convinced that he’s innocent.”

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, left, as they arrive for a consistory at the Vatican on Feb. 13, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Tony Gentile

But O’Malley is right. It is often impossible to produce evidence of crimes that are committed in secrecy. It can often come down to whether you believe the victims.

One of the few journalists to come to Francis’ defense is Austen Ivereigh, contributing editor at Crux and author of one of the best biographies of Francis.

“Victimhood doesn’t just elicit sympathy,” he writes, “it lends credibility, and confers moral authority. So, despite the fact that the bishops consistently and firmly deny that they witnessed Karadima’s abuse (and, in the case of Barros, that he ever received a letter detailing that abuse while serving as secretary to Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno of Santiago), and despite no verified evidence in any civil or canonical case so far that the bishops are lying, the charges against them have stuck in the media.”

He notes that the victims are so far unsuccessfully suing the Archdiocese of Santiago for $450,000. The case “depends on demonstrating that those in authority knew and failed to act on the abuse they suffered.”

“There are plenty of other questions to be asked about the victims’ case,” he concludes, “but few dare to do so for fear of being accused of ‘revictimizing’ them.”

I would argue that both Barros and the victims deserve their day in court, both in civil court and in ecclesiastical court.

Francis is not helping by throwing around accusations of slander and calumny. It is wrong to declare, before the process is completed, that he is convinced the bishop is innocent and his accusers are lying. His job is to see to it that there is a transparent and legitimate process in place to handle such accusations and then get out of the way. To appoint a bishop to a new diocese before his name was cleared was a serious mistake. Francis’ advisers were correct; the bishop should have taken a sabbatical.

The fundamental problem is that the church has no process for judging bishops that is transparent and has legitimacy with the public.

The bishop may or may not be innocent, but no one will trust a secret process that involves clerics investigating clerics, clerics judging clerics.

The past decades have shown that no profession is good at judging its own, whether police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, government workers, athletes, coaches, entertainers, spies, the military or clergy. Too often colleagues look the other way and don’t want to believe that their friend is guilty. When guilt becomes apparent, there is the temptation to deal with it internally and keep it secret lest the profession suffer.

It took too long, but the church now has procedures in place for dealing with abusive priests that involve lay review boards, suspension while an investigation takes place, collecting evidence, hearing from victims and zero tolerance for abusers. It is not a perfect system, and sometimes it is ignored, but at least it exists.

There is no similar process for handling accusations against bishops for failing to report and deal with bad priests.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors recommended that Francis set up a separate office in the Vatican to deal with bishops who fail to do their job protecting children. At first, he agreed, but then he left the job with the Congregation for Bishops and existing Vatican offices. That was a mistake. The office that creates bishops will never be eager to uncover evidence that the man it helped become a bishop is a failure.

The Catholic Church could learn from secular governments on how to structure itself to deal with crimes and cover-ups, especially those that do not come under the jurisdiction of secular authorities.

The Vatican needs a department of justice with professional investigators and prosecutors who could deal with sexual abuse and cover-ups, as well as financial corruption, theft and other crimes. A separate judicial system should determine whether the evidence of guilt is convincing. The roles of investigators and judges could appropriately be held by lay women and men.

No one should be above the law. It compromises the system when someone like Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone is not called to testify under oath in the case involving the misappropriation of funds to pay for the renovation of his apartment.

The status quo is not working. Pope Francis needs to make dramatic changes in the way in which the Vatican investigates crimes, especially those by bishops.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

17 Comments

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  • I say one blind spot of many. The following update will suffice to note said blind spots:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • What no one is bringing up here as well is that judicial systems in countries like Brazil and probably Chile as well is that they are corrupt themselves. They still have a 3rd world mentality with regard to victims whether they be women, children, against those with wealth and power. These victims if even given a chance to face their abusers/enablers in court does not mean the truth will come out.

    I had seen a documentary of the court proceedings held in Brazil with regard to the murder/martyrdom of Sr Dorothy Stang. The blatant ignorance of not only counsel but of the judges was dumbfounding. Accusing her of actually being a witch in a court of law was the final straw. It was a kangaroo court through and through. I will bet the same will be happen in Chile. There is no Mitchell Garabedian for these victims, no sense of power for the victims to get accountability.

    Then when one looks at the long prevailing attitudes and shenanigans of the RCC regarding abuse victims/survivors where are they to turn for justice. So as far as the pope demanding proof, he has now been placed in the same category as all the other obstructionists who revictimize those who still suffer at the collective hands of the RCC. It’s just another nail in the coffin of the catholic hierarchy and their machinations. It just never seems to end with them.

  • I find it very interesting when many atheists and skeptics just glibblly mock religious people because allegedly there is “no evidence” for their position and yet they consistently fail to either provide evidence or even rational arguments for their naturalistic and materialistic assumptions about the world.

    Also Jesus was a rabble rouser……..is that a bad thing when you’re living under a brutal military occupation? Mandela and Gandhi were rabble rousers too so I don’t see your point.

  • You are lumping quite a few things together here, and they should be treated separately. It is not “mocking” to ask serious questions about the historicity of “Jesus” (or any other figure). What is the evidence? How reliable is the evidence? What claims are being made, by whom, and on what basis do the claims rest? Reasonable people may disagree on these matters, as many people do, religious and atheist alike. Was there a historical Jesus? A real person who lived at a certain point in recorded history? And then further, was this person also a supernatural deity who took on human form? These are all legitimate questions, worthy of serious inquiry.

  • It’s not Frank’s blind spot. It is the blind spot that the church has effectively demonstrated since St. Peter Damien. That,s nearly 1000 years before Frank.

  • Here is all of the evidence you need. You are using a computer. It works. It will work today just as well as it did yesterday, and as long as there is electricity, tomorrow as well.

    On the other hand, you have religion. For 2/3 of the people on the planet, the Christian story is nonsense. Christianity is no more effective at explaining anything an any other religion. 5/6 of the world thinks that the Hindu story is nonsense. 5/6 of the world thinks the Muslim story is nonsense. And they will all continue to kill each other over whose story isn’t nonsense.

    Yet, all of them will continue to use their computers, just as they did yesterday, just as they will do tomorrow,

  • Protecting children around the world from sexual predators should have been Job One when this pope was elected. That this travesty has grown even worse under his leadership should negate any claim he has of being a “moral” leader. Publications like RNS who continue to treat him as one are complicit in the crimes continually being committed against children.

  • Some of the references used to prepare the updated Apostles’ Creed:

    From Professors Crossan and Watts’ book,
    Who is Jesus.

    “That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states,
    is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

    “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very
    hard to imagine that Jesus’ followers would have invented such a story unless
    it indeed happened.

    “While the brute fact that of Jesus’ death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. ”

    “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was
    arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in
    the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

    I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that afew examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those “last
    week” details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just
    mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered.”

    See also Professor Crossan’s reviews of the existence of Jesus in his
    other books especially, The Historical Jesus and also Excavating Jesus (with
    Professor Jonathan Reed doing the archeology discussion) .

    Other NT exegetes to include members of the Jesus Seminar have published
    similar books with appropriate supporting references.

    Part of Crossan’s The Historical Jesus has been published online at
    books.google.com/books.

    There is also a search engine for this book on the
    opening page. e.g. Search Josephus

    See also Wikipedia’s review on the historical Jesus to include the
    Tacitus’ reference to the crucifixion of Jesus.

    From ask.com,

    “One of the greatest historians of ancient Rome, Cornelius Tacitus is
    a primary source for much of what is known about life the first and second
    centuries after the life of Jesus. His most famous works, Histories and Annals,
    exist in fragmentary form, though many of his earlier writings were lost to
    time. Tacitus is known for being generally reliable (if somewhat biased toward
    what he saw as Roman immorality) and for having a uniquely direct (if not
    blunt) writing style.

    Then there are these scriptural references:

    Crucifixion of Jesus:(1) 1 Cor 15:3b; (2a) Gos. Pet. 4:10-5:16,18-20;
    6:22; (2b) Mark 15:22-38 = Matt 27:33-51a = Luke 23:32-46; (2c) John
    19:17b-25a,28-36; (3) Barn. 7:3-5; (4a) 1 Clem. 16:3-4 (=Isaiah 53:1-12); (4b)
    1 Clem. 16.15-16 (=Psalm 22:6-8); (5a) Ign. Mag. 11; (5b) Ign. Trall. 9:1b;
    (5c) Ign. Smyrn. 1.2.- (read them all at wiki.faithfutures. Crucifixion
    org/index.php/005_Crucifixion_Of_Jesus )

    Added suggested readings:

    1. Historical Jesus Theories,
    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html – the names of many of the
    contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the titles of their over 100 books
    on the subject.

    Early Christian Writings,
    earlychristianwritings.com/

    – a list of early Christian documents to include the year of publication–

    30-60 CE Passion Narrative

    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q

    50-60 1 Thessalonians

    50-60 Philippians

    50-60 Galatians

    50-60 1 Corinthians

    50-60 2 Corinthians

    50-60 Romans

    50-60 Philemon

    50-80 Colossians

    50-90 Signs Gospel

    50-95 Book of Hebrews

    50-120 Didache

    50-140 Gospel of Thomas

    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel

    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ

    65-80 Gospel of Mark

    70-100 Epistle of James

    70-120 Egerton Gospel

    70-160 Gospel of Peter

    70-160 Secret Mark

    70-200 Fayyum Fragment

    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion

    80-100 2 Thessalonians

    80-100 Ephesians

    80-100 Gospel of Matthew

    80-110 1 Peter

    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas

    80-130 Gospel of Luke

    80-130 Acts of the Apostles

    80-140 1 Clement

    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians

    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews

    80-250 Christian Sibyllines

    90-95 Apocalypse of John

    90-120 Gospel of John

    90-120 1 John

    90-120 2 John

    90-120 3 John

    90-120 Epistle of Jude

    93 Flavius Josephus

    100-150 1 Timothy

    100-150 2 Timothy

    100-150 T-itus

    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter

    100-150 Secret Book of James

    100-150 Preaching of Peter

    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites

    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans

    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas

    100-160 2 Peter

    4. Jesus Database,
    http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html –”The JESUS DATABASE is an
    online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings
    of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era.
    It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to
    the traditions found within the Christian New Testament.”

    5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bis-sar24.htm

    6. The Jesus Seminar, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Seminar

    7.
    http://www.biblicalartifacts.com/items/785509/item785509biblicalartifacts.html
    – books on the health and illness during the time of the NT

    8. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman,
    Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.

    9.The Gnostic Jesus

    (Part One in a Two-Part Series on Ancient and Modern Gnosticism)

    by Douglas Gro-othuis:
    http://www.equip.org/articles/gnosticism-and-the-gnostic-jesus/

    10. The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical
    Commission

    Presented on March 18, 1994

    ewtn.com/library/CURIA/PBCINTER.HTM#2

    11. The Jesus Database- newer site:

    wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Jesus_Database

    12. Jesus Database with the example of Su-pper and Eucharist:

    faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb016.html

    13. Josephus on Jesus by Paul Maier:

    mtio.com/articles/bis-sar24.htm

    13. http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/jesus.htmm- Historical Jesus Studies

    14. The Greek New Testament: laparola.net/greco/

    15. D-iseases in the Bible:

    http://books.google.com/books/about/The_d-iseases_of_the_Bible.html?id=C1YZAAAAYAAJ

    16. Religion on- Line (6000 articles on the
    history of religion, churches, theologies,

    theologians, ethics, etc. religion-online.org/

    17.
    The New Testament Gateway – Internet NT ntgate-way.com/

    18
    Writing the New Testament- existing copies, oral tradition etc.

    ntgateway.com/

    19. JD Crossan’s conclusions about the
    a-uthencity of most of the NT based on the above plus the c-onclusions of other
    NT exegetes in the last 200 years:

    http://wiki.faithfutures.o-rg/index.php?title=Crossan_Inventory

    20. Early Jewish Writings- Josephus and his books
    by title with the complete translated work in English
    :earlyjewishwritings.com/josephus.html

    21. Luke and Josephus- was there a c-onnection?

    infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/lukeandjosephus.html

    22. NT and beyond time line:

    pbs.org/empires/peterandpaul/history/timeline/

    23. St. Paul’s Time line with discussion of
    important events:

    harvardhouse.com/prophetictech/new/pauls_life.htm

    24. See http://www.amazon.com for a list of JDCrossan’s books and those of the other Jesus Seminarians: Reviews of said booksare included and selected pages can now be viewed on Amazon. Some books can befound on-line at Google Books.

    25. Father Edward Schillebeeckx’s words of wisdom
    as found in his books.

    27. The books of the following : Professors Gerd
    Ludemann, Marcus Borg, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong and
    Bishop NT Wright.

    28. Father Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, NY,
    1977, 878 pages, with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.

    29. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book The Real Jesus

    Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical
    Argument for Jesus of Nazareth [Hardcover]

    Bart D. Ehrman (Author)

    Large numbers of atheists, humanists, and conspiracy
    theorists are raising one of the most pressing questions in the history of
    religion: “Did Jesus exist at all?” Was he invented out of whole
    cloth for nefarious purposes by those seeking to control the masses? Or was
    Jesus such a shadowy figure—far removed from any credible historical
    evidence—that he bears no meaningful resemblance to the person described in the
    Bible?

    In Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts these questions, vigorously defends the historicity of Jesus, and provides a compelling portrait of the man from Nazareth. The Jesus you discover here may not be the Jesus you had hoped to meet—but he did exist, whether we like it or not.

  • Witness testimony IS evidence. If Bon says “I saw John there when Peter was fondling me,” that statement is evidence that John was there. Demanding Bob cease stating that he believes John knew because he was there on the grounds that Bob has no evidence of that statement is a total nonsequitur. Bob has evidence. He produced it. Now, maybe Bob is unreliable, mayne he misremembers, maybe John couldn’t see what Bob thinks he saw from John’s vantage point. But thats why we have trials and hearings. Simply declaring “there is no evidence, therefore I won’t look into it” when the victim statements are, in fact, evidence is just a classic way of dismissing abuse victims. It victims aren’t allowed to tell their stories because their statements, alone among all other testimonial evidence, are declared to be nonevidence, then the Pope might as well just declare abuse permissible. You could basically never prosecute it, so what’s the point of banning it?

  • Francis is clearly either unable or unwilling to clean his own house. He caved on the independent audit and he caved on the abuse tribunal. Until he cleans his own house, he has no business lecturing other people about their houses. Moral leadership is about doing, not about talking.

  • Regarding: “The overwhelming consensus in the media is that Pope Francis has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse.”
    – The rape of children and molestation of young people for sure makes everyone want to wince so tightly that their eyes can not see, and their ears cannot hear.
    – However, it is not enough for Francis of Rome to believe the bishop as there is no evidence; he has to also explain why there is so much smoke.
    – Is Francis mistakenly viewing these matters from a paradigm of secular and or canon law (e.g., the ones he knew in Argentina) where ‘evidence’ is so defined that the only beneficiary is the accused? That is, the one harmed has no real recourse short of a video evidence from a camera held by a judge during the commission of the crime? It seems so. In which case the Council of Nine, and the Commission for the Protection of Minors need to work very hard to get Francis’ on, albeit, a steep learning curve.
    – Even so, what Francis also needs to confront is the systemic and institutionalize scandal of episcopal secrecy that is subsequent to the crimes against children and young people by clerics. What Francis needs to ask is: Where was/were the bishop(s) or what were his/their aides doing at the time so many people were being hurt? This is the question that no doubt will open a pandora’s box the contents of which would frame a vista of episcopal dereliction of duty to govern, sanctify, and teach. From this, then it could be determine not just what the bishop did not do, but what he did do that created an environment that allowed a cleric to harm others.

  • “it is not enough for Francis of Rome to believe the bishop as there is no evidence; he has to also explain why there is so much smoke.”

    Actually, what he has to do is stop lying that there is no evidence. There is. He needs to actually evaluate the evidence and explain why he doesn’t think it proves that his buddy knew.

  • Is Francis not familiar with the Murphy Report in Ireland, the books on clerical abuse in Spain by Pepe Rodriguez, the whole Cardinal Law and US mess, the Australian abuse scandal, etc?

  • The power of the pope continues to decrease as it should as the human race continues to evolve in the reality of their existence.

    Once the Catholic Church is “deflawed” and the muck and stench of 2000 years of “voodooing the hoodoo” and the “mumbo jumboing” of atonement and original sin removed, there will be no pope since only the Beatitudes will be left standing.

    From Rabbi Brad Hirschfield: When Priests And Rabbis Commit Sexual Abuse
    Mar 29, 2010 ……
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi…/when-priests-and-rabbis-c_b_516386.html

    “The words used by Pope Benedict (and now Francis) and others in responding to the Church’s ever-deepening sexual abuse crises reflect a sickness that is not unique to the Catholic community. In fact, that sickness creeps into all religious communities of which I know, and leaves a trail of victims in its wake every time. I refer to the way in which religious leaders and the communities which they lead wear the mantle of victimhood to cover their naked moral failings.”

  • Wow, even Catholic World Report, no friend of brother Thomas Reese’s, has got his back on this one! That says a lot. Make it so, then, I say, with that idea of his; it’s catching on, apparently.

    “[A] prominent US churchman with ties to the Vatican, Father James Martin, SJ—who serves as a consultor to the Holy See’s Secretariat for Communications—… said the Church must implement systems capable of holding the Church’s hierarchical leadership accountable. … Martin is not the only prominent US Jesuit to make such a call. Writing for Religion News Service, Father Thomas J. Reese argued, ‘The fundamental problem is that the Church has no process for judging bishops that is transparent and has legitimacy with the public.'”

    (Source: Christopher R. Altieri, “Observers remain ‘mystified’ over Pope’s remarks on clerical sex abuse, and call for bishop accountability: The Vatican deemed Bishop Barros’ accusers credible: Why doesn’t the Pope believe them when they say the bishop knew about their abuse?”, Catholic World Report, January 26, 2018.)

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