Editorial: The pope needs to clear the air over cover-ups in the Catholic Church — including about his own conduct

Pope Francis is caught in pensive mood during his weekly general audience at the Vatican on Aug. 22.
(Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

For almost a generation, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and worldwide has been shaken by revelations that a significant number of priests had sexually abused young people — and that church leaders not only conspired to conceal their crimes, but often also allowed them to continue to have contact with children, sometimes on the mistaken assumption that they had been “cured.”

But lately the anxiety among the faithful over decades of denial and deceit has reached a crisis point. It now threatens to tarnish the reformist papacy of Pope Francis.

The pope himself has been accused by a retired Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, of reactivating a sidelined former U.S. cardinal despite being told that the prelate had sexually harassed seminarians. Meanwhile, the American church has been dealing with the aftershocks of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that identified 301 “predator priests” who abused more than 1,000 children in six of the state’s eight dioceses over a period of 70 years. The report has led to calls for the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who was faulted in the report for decisions he made as bishop of Pittsburgh. Wuerl has said he will meet with the pope soon to ask Francis to accept his resignation.


Beyond the question of the pope’s personal conduct is his willingness to address the legacy of clerical abuse and cover-up.

If Pope Francis is to retain his credibility amid what one of his advisors called the church’s 9/11, he needs to answer questions about what he knew and did about the alleged sexual misdeeds of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Much more important, he needs to recommit his papacy and the church he leads to protecting the faithful — children and adults alike — from wolves in shepherds’ clothing.

Francis has declined so far to comment on Vigano’s sensational accusations, but Vigano’s “testimony” quickly divided the U.S. Catholic hierarchy along liberal-conservative lines. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement saying that questions raised by Vigano’s broadside “deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence.” DiNardo and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the conference’s vice president, are slated to meet with Francis on Thursday.

At that meeting or shortly thereafter, the pope must answer the allegation that he knew of McCarrick’s conduct with seminarians and nevertheless made the retired cardinal his “trusted counselor.” (Francis eventually removed McCarrick from the College of Cardinals after a church investigation found credible reports that he long ago had abused a minor.)

It’s understandable that Francis might not want to dignify the criticism coming from Vigano, who belongs to an anti-Francis faction in the church and has called for the pope to resign. But this is a pope known for his plain-speaking and ability to engage in self-criticism. He apologized, for example, after initially denouncing as “calumny” charges that a Chilean bishop had covered up sexual abuse by a priest. Later, Francis accepted the bishop’s resignation. He should now answer questions about whether he knew of reports about McCarrick’s misdeeds (and whether he believed them) and whether he encouraged McCarrick to resume an active role in the church.

Beyond the question of the pope’s personal conduct is his willingness to address the legacy of clerical abuse and cover-up. On Wednesday the Vatican announced that Francis would summon bishops from around the world to Rome in February to discuss “prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.” The addition of “vulnerable adults” is significant. The church is now having its own #MeToo movement, and it must be clear that bishops and priests will be punished if they sexually harass young people under their authority even if they are legal adults.

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In 2002, the U.S. bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that, among other reforms, obliges dioceses to report allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to public authorities. It has made a difference. Even the Pennsylvania grand jury acknowledged that “much has changed over the past 15 years” and that it appears that “the church is now advising law enforcement of reports more promptly.”

But the report also noted that individual church leaders “have largely escaped public accountability.” It added, “Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

In requesting Thursday’s meeting with the pope, DiNardo said he would ask Francis to support the U.S. bishops’ plans to “make reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier, and improve procedures for resolving complaints against bishops.” Such complaints must be fully investigated and the findings made known, even if they involve the bishop of Rome.

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