VATICAN CITY (RNS) — From his advocacy for migrants to opening up the Sistine Chapel to Rome’s homeless, Pope Francis has been an outspoken voice for people suffering on the margins.
But the 81-year-old pontiff’s appeals on behalf of the downtrodden are being overshadowed by the way he is dealing with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“This is a situation which the pope has mishandled, and it’s gone from bad to worse,” Marie Collins, a former member of a pontifical commission on clerical sex abuse, who herself was abused by a priest when she was 13 years old, told Religion News Service.
The pope — who has repeatedly been accused of having a tin ear on this issue — is coming under pressure after it emerged he was handed a letter detailing abuse committed by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, a prominent Chilean priest, and how a future bishop witnessed it but did nothing.
It contradicted Francis’ comments to journalists last month that no victims had come forward with evidence of a cover-up by Bishop Juan Barros, whom the pope appointed in 2015 to lead the Diocese of Osorno. During a trip to Chile in January, Francis also upset survivors by describing the claims against Barros — many of them made by victims — as “calumny.”
Collins said she is shocked by the way Francis has dealt with the case.
“It surprised me, as I did have a fair amount of faith in the pope, and he did seem to have an understanding of the pain of victims. I have a general feeling of mystification,” said Collins, who helped draft child protection guidelines for the church in Ireland.
In addition to appearing insensitive to victims in the Barros case, the pope has also drawn criticism for not making the prevention of sexual abuse of children high enough on his priority list. While the abuse scandal has in the past centered on cover-ups like the one in Boston highlighted by the film "Spotlight," the challenge for the church is to help survivors and stop abuse from happening again, and the pope appears to be falling short, according to Collins.
“It wouldn’t be so shocking if he hadn’t spoken so harshly to victims, and it’s hard to understand why he spoke in that way,” she said. “He was also in Chile and could have met those survivors while he was there.”
Francis did meet victims while in Chile, just not those abused by Karadima, who was sentenced to a life of “prayer and penance” by the Vatican in 2011.
Collins said that what most baffles her about the pope's remark that no one had come forward was that a delegation she was part of handed a letter written by a Karadima victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, to Cardinal Sean O’Malley in April 2015. At the time, O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that she was part of, promised to deliver the missive personally to the pope.
Returning to Rome after his South American trip, the pope did an about-face and announced he was sending Archbishop Charles Scicluna to “listen” to those with information about the Barros case.
The Maltese archbishop is the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor for sex abuse cases. He investigated the abusive behavior by the Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ movement who was protected by powerful figures inside the Vatican.
On Feb. 17, Scicluna is due in New York, where he will meet with Cruz and hear his testimony.
While the Vatican is not officially commenting on the latest developments in the Barros case, sources point to Scicluna’s appointment as a sign the pope is taking it seriously.
Nevertheless, Francis is still playing catch-up. While investigations go on in Chile, a child protection commission set up by the pope to advise on safeguarding has been left waiting for new members.
Collins resigned from that body last year in frustration at the blocking of reform by the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation — which takes a lead role on sex abuse cases. One of the major challenges she and other commission members identified was the need to hold bishops accountable for mishandling cases.
“The other shocking thing is the commission has been left adrift, and that new members have not been appointed,” Collins said. “The next meeting is in April and the work should go on between meetings but not without members. Things can’t be just left sitting there.”
Collins says a major test will be the pope's visit later this year to Ireland, a country where the wounds are still raw from a sexual abuse scandal.
“Ireland is a country that has been left decimated by the abuse issue — so many have walked away. We now have an aging clergy and few vocations. It wasn’t so much the fact abuse took place that caused this but the appalling way it was handled,” Collins said.
“In Ireland there had been renewed hope with Francis, but some of those hopes have been dashed recently.”
(Christopher Lamb is The Tablet’s Rome correspondent and a contributor to Religion News Service.)