The pope is a moral statesman on the global stage, a peerless voice for human rights. “If you want peace, work for justice,” Pope Paul VI memorably said.
Now a crisis of justice confronts Pope Francis — a man revered by many millions as a champion for the poor, migrants and victims of sexual trafficking, among others — following shock waves from a Pennsylvania grand jury report and an explosive allegation this weekend by a former Vatican ambassador who alleges that Francis is among those hiding abusers.
What specifically can Francis do to restore the values of justice amid the exploding clerical sex abuse catastrophe? The pope should respond to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s charge implicating him in the scandal around Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in order to clear the air and put his agenda back in balance. The core problem is a hierarchy of celibate men, honeycombed in sexual secrecy, addicted to structural mendacity — essentially, institutionalized lying.
For 30 years, I gained access to church documents for articles, books and documentaries on the crisis. I interviewed survivors, therapists, legal authorities and church insiders. No longer surprised, I am still shocked.
Francis should take three specific steps.
1. Move forcefully with unused papal power.
The church operates under a legal system known as the Code of Canon Law, with the pope, as sovereign monarch, the ultimate authority.
The pope has the authority to intervene in any church-law proceeding, should he choose. Popes are elected by the College of Cardinals, the elite who have risen from priest to bishop to Prince of the Church. In the twilight of his life, Pope John Paul II offered Mother Teresa a seat in the conclave that would elect his successor. She declined.
The College of Cardinals has never had a woman; no woman has ever voted in a conclave. Was John Paul using the supreme power to make new church law?
“Not at all,” says Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine priest and canonist who left the church in disgust over the scandals and became a research witness in abuse survivor cases.
“Canon law has no stated restriction on membership in the College of Cardinals. If there is no prohibition, that leaves by principle the possibility for another action.”
Translation: The pope can elevate any number of nuns to be cardinals. “And other women, or laymen,” adds Wall. “The pope can create a whole category of people as cardinals. You do not have to be an ordained bishop.”
The bishops who recycled child molesters did not bring infants into the world, walk the rug with a baby crying from colic or nurture children into maturity. The bishops’ priority as surrogate fathers to criminal priests was to protect Mother Church from scandal. The Roman Catholic Church desperately needs the wisdom of women to rebuild a warped power structure.
In 1996, John Paul II decreed that women could never be priests. Francis considers that a closed issue. Nevertheless, he can give women permanent status as deacons or deaconesses with ministerial roles as another tool in dislodging the “clericalism” he has scorned — cliques of men using power for pleasure
Francis should convene a gathering of notable laywomen for consultation, and from their ranks elevate a cross-section as cardinals — leaders such as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a noted author and speaker; St. Joseph Sister Christine Schenk, a founder of FutureChurch, which pioneered the Liturgy of Lament for abuse survivors; Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, an outspoken former member of the National Review Board empaneled in 2002 as lay advisers when the U.S. bishops adapted their youth protection charter; and Marie Collins of Dublin, an abuse survivor who left the pope’s advisory commission on protection of minors for its foot-dragging.
The pope also needs an independent criminal judiciary to try negligent or predatory bishops. Francis’s plan for a special tribunal to oversee bishops at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was stymied by its prefect, German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller.
In 2004, as a bishop, Müller reassigned a priest convicted of sexually abusing minors to parish work, despite warnings from a Nuremberg court, according to Der Spiegel magazine. The priest was subsequently arrested for new offenses. In 2017, the pope did not renew Müller’s five-year appointment.
The absence of bishop accountability magnifies the need for a Vatican criminal judiciary, apart from the administrative planks of the church’s legal system. Catholic constitutional scholars could create a criminal court, one that upholds papal power but is beyond cardinals’ intervention.
Meanwhile the crisis is spreading. This summer alone, there have been fresh allegations of abuse concealed in India, Chile, England and Honduras, the latter involving a bishop who allegedly preyed on seminarians — a deputy to one of Francis’s close advisers, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga.
Of Francis’s nine top cardinal-advisers, three are implicated in mishandling abuse.
George Pell in Australia, trailed by allegations of negligent oversight, awaits trial on allegations of abuse. Francisco Javier Errázuriz in Chile has been exposed in media and legal proceedings for failure to take action on credible reports of a notorious predator. Moreover, several years ago, Rodríguez Maradiaga in Honduras sheltered a cleric sought by U.S. law enforcement for sexual abuse of youth.
Another member of the pope’s nine reform advisers, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, canceled an appearance with the pope last week in order to deal with accusations of a sexual hothouse in a seminary of his Boston archdiocese.
“The center cannot hold,” wrote Yeats.
2. The American investigation
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston has invited “an apostolic visitation” (Vatican investigation) of the U.S. hierarchy. Visitations produce secret reports, as with Chile’s recent abuse scandal. Following that probe, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s document, coupled with Francis’s long conversations in Rome with Chilean abuse survivors, caused all of the nation’s 34 bishops to submit their resignations; Francis has accepted eight so far.
An American investigation team needs at least one well-qualified laywoman, subpoena power to get church files, and public hearings, similar to a South Africa-like Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This would allow survivors to confront bishops and would create a vital forum for loyal Catholics to advance a strategy for structural reform.
3. The celibacy issue and gay priests.
Francis can strike a serious blow against clericalism by making the celibacy law optional, opening the priesthood to married men. A critical mass of priests with wives and children will force changes in church governing — and shift the focus of theology from papal obedience toward realities of family life.
Countless priests dutifully serve the church. Yet the celibacy law, as a cornerstone of church governing, has failed. Celibacy-as-law and the core requirement for religious service have driven off an army of well-intentioned priests and other men inclined to ministry.
The law could be changed with a stroke of the papal pen, but popes are highly reluctant to take positions that would seem at variance with a predecessor’s stance. In 1967, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical praised mandatory celibacy (with no psychological citations) as the church’s “brilliant jewel.” Since then, more than 100,000 Americans have left the priesthood, many of them to marry, their hopes dashed by Vatican II reforms eclipsed.
Hard data are elusive, but a substantial body of literature underscores how, alongside that attrition rate, a gay priest culture took root. Father Donald Cozzens, a Cleveland seminary rector, worried in “The Changing Face of the Priesthood” (2000) that the priesthood was becoming “a gay profession.”
A 2002 Los Angeles Times survey of questionnaires to 1,854 priests, found 9 percent gay and 6 percent who “leaned” homosexual, a combined 15 percent — well above other survey data suggesting 5 percent of Americans as LGBT. Many researchers, I among them, consider the gay clergy numbers at least a third or higher.
In reaction to McCarrick’s demotion as a cardinal, Madison, Wis., Bishop Robert Morlino has stated that McCarrick abused his power for “homosexual gratification.” Morlino blames a “homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church that is wreaking great devastation.”
However many bishops may be gay, the majority culture is just as guilty. By translating crimes into sins, in order to shelter priests who abused girls as well as boys, the bishops in many dioceses also sanctioned brass-knuckle legal tactics that turned survivors into enemies of the church. That is the great moral crime embedded in the clericalism that Pope Francis decries, a culture of self-serving power flaunting the values of people in the pews.
Morlino echoes a letter that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, well before he became Pope Benedict XVI, sent bishops in 1986, denouncing homosexuality as a “moral disorder.”
Such language is fodder to the scapegoat romping in conservative blogs, that gay priests are to blame.
Gay Catholics who take solace in the sacraments ache at pederasty scandals, just like priests, gay and straight, who loyally serve the church.
The problem is the power structure.
The “homosexual subculture” is one strand in a hierarchy warped by pathological secrecy in concealing sexual behavior of all kinds, legal and not. Over the last quarter century, the crisis has grown in America, the root cause unchanged: a power structure of men without women, swamped in secrets that the legal system will no longer let them keep.
Jason Berry received the Investigative Reporters and Editors Best Book Award for “Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church” (2011). He is the author of “City of a Million Dreams: A History of New Orleans at Year 300,” out this fall.