Pope Francis in Sicily, Italy, in September 2018. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
Opinion columnist

Pope Francis did not have the year he thought he was going to have.

It began this way: marked by sniping about his reform tendencies, especially where Catholic Church teaching on the family is concerned. As the Vatican geared up for its 2018 synod assembly — a meeting of bishops from around the world who gather in Rome to advise the pope on different issues, this year on youth and vocations — talk that the 2014 and 2015 synod meetings on the family had been rigged in favor of a reformist agenda circulated among anti-Francis factions. Perhaps the Francis skeptics assumed they would get to press their case against the pope again when the October synod on youth came to pass. But even they couldn’t have predicted what sort of opportunities would present themselves in the meantime. 

There have been plenty of those. Today, Francis’s pontificate wavers in the wake of the explosive reemergence of the sex abuse crisis. His popularity has dropped sharply among Americans at large. And though Catholics’ views of the pope are steadier, the faithful are suffering. The pope has been called upon to resign and likewise advised strongly against it.

Pope Francis has — for the most part, though with notable exceptions — said the right things about the crisis. But saying the right things about it is easy, and despite all the encouraging remarks, Francis has taken little action so far. In February he will convene a worldwide meeting of key bishops in Rome to generate actionable solutions to the disaster facing the church. Will it change anything?

A brief recap: After an investigation led by the Archdiocese of New York found accusations of minor sexual abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick to be credible, McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals and Pope Francis ordered him into a life of prayer and penance, effectively banishing him from public life. A few weeks later, an explosive grand jury report from Pennsylvania revealed the disgusting, almost unthinkable extent of clergy sexual abuse and its coverup in the state, implicating several prelates, including then-archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Roughly a week later, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released a long testimonial accusing Francis himself of having known of McCarrick’s abuses and permitting him to continue in public ministry anyhow, loosening restrictions placed on him by Pope Benedict XVI in the process.

And so all hell had broken loose. Francis chose to remain silent on Vigano’s accusations. As for Pennsylvania, Francis released a letter “to the people of God,” vowing to take a zero-tolerance approach to abuse against “the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.” And, on the McCarrick scandal itself, Francis agreed to open the Vatican’s archives to permit a “thorough study” of his career of sexual abuse but declined to pursue a Vatican-led probe into that history. In October, Wuerl resigned as archbishop of Washington, a delayed aftershock of the Pennsylvania report. Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation but praised his performance in an apparent rebuttal to survivors and lay Catholics who had called for Wuerl to step down.

Since then, Francis has called for abusive clergy members to turn themselves over to civil authorities and prepare themselves for divine justice, declaring that the church will not protect them. Like most of his handling of the crisis so far, it was a puzzling, unsettling remark. Of course, rapists and sexual abusers should be prosecuted by civil authorities. But so should superiors who’ve aided and abetted them over the years. Francis seems prepared, in other words, to expose abusive priests to the full extent of civil justice. But the problem won’t end until complicit members of the hierarchy are similarly exposed, and that still seems like a distant prospect.

Restoring the moral credibility of the church on the world stage following the mishandling of the 2002 revelations of the sex abuse crisis always seemed to be part of Francis’s mandate. For a period after news of the crisis broke in the early aughts, the church still behaved as though it could rely on hardball legal tactics and brazen dismissal to weather it — victims were smeared and shamed in lawsuit proceedings, and church higher-ups blamed the entire disaster on sexual liberalism and anti-Catholic bigotry. But Francis was different: He instituted the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He listened to survivors. He was compassionate. He cared. 

But now the Pontifical Commission has withered, according to victims’ advocates and members of the panel itself, McCarrick sits silently in Kansas, and the February meeting of bishop-leaders remains a weak hook to hang hopes on. If Francis fails in handling the crisis going forward, the damage will be incalculable — first to the victims that are and the ones that will be, then to the struggling Catholics who have prayed for some honest action in this ongoing catastrophe since 2002, and then to the cohesion of the church stretching into the future.

This year was only a brief glimpse into what lies ahead. Now that multiple states are conducting investigations into the church inside their borders, there will be more Pennsylvania-like reports, more media coverage and more insight into which highly ranked prelates did what. Francis seemed caught off guard in 2018 and unprepared to play a decisive role in the crisis. Let us pray 2019 is different.