POPE FRANCIS, who pledged a policy of “zero tolerance” for sexually abusive clergy in the Catholic Church, has turned out to be all too tolerant. On Thursday, Australian police brought criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell, a top Vatican official and kitchen- cabinet adviser to the pope, for multiple alleged incidents of sexual assault.
The charges against Cardinal Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and the pope’s hand-picked agent of administrative reform, shook the Holy See, notwithstanding long-standing allegations that he ignored, dismissed and excused cases of sexual misconduct during his pre-Vatican years as a priest and church official in Australia. That included the crimes of a notorious pedophile priest with whom Cardinal Pell shared a house for two years in the 1970s.
In fact, while Cardinal Pell is the rare Vatican princeling to be charged with sexual misconduct, he was one of two members of the Vatican’s nine-member Council of Cardinals alleged to have turned a blind eye to child sex abuse undertaken by priests once under his jurisdiction. The other is Cardinal Javier Errázuriz, formerly the archbishop of Santiago, Chile. Both men were elevated to the council by Pope Francis.
Cardinal Pell, 76, who denied the sexual assault charges, was granted a leave of absence to return to Australia, where he said he would contest the charges.
Whatever the resolution to his case, the cardinal has long been notorious, even by Vatican standards, for the callousness of his attitude toward the abuse scandal that has bedeviled the church for most of this century. Speaking of one infamous priest widely known as a serial abuser in Australia in the early 1990s, when Cardinal Pell was a high-ranking church official in Melbourne, he said, “It’s a sad story and [the extent to which it was publicly known] wasn’t of much interest to me.” Peter Saunders, a highly respected survivor of sexual abuse who served on the Vatican’s commission on abuse, said Cardinal Pell was “almost sociopathic” in his indifference toward victims.
Pope Francis has achieved some important reforms, notably in steering the church toward a more enlightened view of homosexuals. But by now it’s clear that a muscular, unequivocal and truly “zero tolerance” stance against pedophile priests and their enablers is not a priority for him. He announced with fanfare a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for enabling abusive priests, then said it was unneeded. He reduced the punishments of a number of priests disgraced by abuse scandals.
Church officials continue to fight laws in the United States that would enable victims of clergy abuse to seek justice in court. And prelates and other senior church figures continue implicitly to minimize overwhelming evidence of systematic abuse by characterizing the church as no better or worse on the issue than society at large — a morally bankrupt position unsupported by evidence.
Again and again, the pope’s deeds on clergy sex abuse have not matched his words, and real accountability throughout the church has been lacking. By his tolerance, Pope Francis ensures that the disgrace of clergy sex abuse will continue to be a stain on the Catholic Church.