Pope defends keeping French cardinal convicted of cover-up in sex abuse scandal

Pope Francis, accompanied by interim director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, speaks to reporters on board the flight back to Rome from a two-day trip to Morocco, on March 31, 2019.
Pope Francis, accompanied by interim director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, speaks to reporters on board the flight back to Rome from a two-day trip to Morocco, on March 31, 2019.
(Alberto Pizzoli / Associated Press)

Pope Francis defended his decision to reject French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin’s resignation after he was convicted of covering up for a predator priest, saying Sunday that the appeals process must run its course before a final decision is made.

Francis also explained why he rejected proposals by U.S. bishops to respond to the sex abuse scandal there, saying they neglected the spiritual dimension required for a true reform.

The pope referred to both cases during an in-flight news conference en route home Sunday from Morocco.


Francis’ papacy has been thrown into turmoil by the eruption of the scandal on multiple continents and his own handling of cases at the Vatican. Currently, two of his cardinals — Barbarin and Australian Cardinal George Pell — have criminal abuse-related convictions hanging over them, though both are appealing.

Asked Sunday about Barbarin, Francis said the archbishop of Lyon was entitled to the presumption of innocence as long as the case remained open.

“He has appealed, so the case is open. After the second tribunal decides, we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Francis said that presumption of innocence was necessary to guard against a “superficial media condemnation.”

Barbarin offered his resignation to Francis this month after a court in Lyon gave him a six-month suspended sentence for failing to report the Rev. Bernard Preynat to civil authorities when he learned of his abuse. Preynat, who is scheduled to be tried on sexual violence charges next year, confessed to abusing Boy Scouts in the 1970s and 1980s. His victims accuse Barbarin and other church authorities of covering up for him for years.

After Francis declined to accept the resignation, Barbarin decided to take a leave and turned over the day-to-day management of the archdiocese to his deputy.


In the news conference, Francis also defended his tendency to blame the devil for the abuse scandal, saying the crisis is of such magnitude and scale of filth that it cannot be understood without referencing the “mystery of evil.”

“It’s not washing your hands [of the problem] to say the devil did it,” Francis said. “We have to do battle with the devil. Just as we have to battle human things.”

Francis explained that it was precisely the spiritual dimension of the scandal that he asked U.S. bishops to reflect on when he sent them on spiritual retreats at the beginning of the year. The U.S. church hierarchy has suffered a credibility crisis over its repeated failures to protect children from predator priests, as evidenced by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors and adults.

At their November general meeting, the U.S. bishops had planned to vote on proposals to hold themselves accountable for sexual misconduct or negligence in handling abuse cases. But the Vatican blocked them from taking up the measures, which included a third-party confidential reporting system and a code of conduct.

“The proposals were too much about organization, about methodology,” Francis said Sunday. “But they had neglected this second, spiritual dimension.”

The head of the U.S. bishops conference, Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, stunned the bishops when he opened the assembly Nov. 12 by announcing that “at the insistence of the Holy See” the bishops wouldn’t be voting on the measures after all. He said the Vatican wanted them to delay a vote until after Francis’ February abuse summit.


The U.S. bishops are expected to take up the revised proposals at their June meeting.