Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and the co-author of Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal.
It is not quite what I expected, but it was perfectly and appropriately timed. I had just left a special showing of Wim Wenders’s impressive documentary, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, when I received a news bulletin highlighting the same Pope’s unnerving address to the Chilean bishops and their even more unnerving response: an en masse resignation of the entire episcopacy of Chile.
For months now, years even, the Chilean Catholic Church has been roiled in a never-ending scandal around clerical sex abuse. It reached its climax when Francis, finally and conclusively, grasped the crushing reality that the cataract of allegations were not calumnies, that the victims were not liars, that highly placed clerics were dissemblers and that the church had failed, failed miserably, in its service to charity and justice.
He needed to learn the hard truth and he learned it the hard way. Pressured by a distraught laity to remove Bishop Juan Barros from his diocese of Osorno, Francis resisted all entreaties, became testy when probed by the media, reaffirmed the canonical and pastoral validity of his decision and called into question the authenticity of the victims’ claims.
Bishop Barros was accused of protecting, even countenancing through inaction, the predatory behaviour of the now notorious, and jailed, charismatic priest, Fernando Karadima. The three principal accusers – Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton and Jose Andres Murillo – wouldn’t go away, the backlash to the Pope’s uncharacteristic insensitivity grew and dissension among the bishops escalated.
Francis dispatched the Vatican’s scourge of abusers, Charles Scicluna, a rigorous and no-nonsense investigator and now the Archbishop of Malta, to prepare a report on the Chilean situation. In no time he had a 2,300-page report to give to the pontiff. Francis himself met privately for hours with the key victims and the entire Chilean hierarchy was summoned to Rome for a reckoning.
And what a reckoning.
Francis scolded the bishops for their moral bankruptcy, their “grave negligence” in failing to protect the children from clerical predators, their inclination to minimize the charges and silence or discredit the accusers and their destruction of sex-crime evidence. It was a no-holds barred remonstration, as only this Pope can pull off.
In the end, the bishops collectively offered their resignations. This is unprecedented. For decades now, getting the bishops individually, never mind collectively, to accept some responsibility on the clerical sex-abuse file has been a Sisyphean task. And this is the case in other jurisdictions outside of Chile, as well.
Also unprecedented is the moving prologue to the en masse offer of resignations: the humbling of a pope. Francis acted contritely in public, acknowledging his own personal failure in not listening to the pain of the victims, sought forgiveness and has acted. He moved beyond mere gesture, damage control or devolution of responsibility.
It took him a while to grasp the high priority of this haunting legacy of evil; other issues took precedence. His own exposure was so limited he failed to comprehend that although the number of abusers statistically was not overwhelming (the vast majority of priests are not sex abusers), the lingering aftershocks are devastating for all affected and the credibility of the church seriously compromised.
Even though he established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and sanctioned abusers and their complicit overseers, he was slow to act. No longer. His conversion is complete.
Contrast Francis with his immediate predecessors and you can see the progress. Benedict XVI did move to extirpate “the filth,” as he called them, from the church, introduced tougher legislation, but in the end seemed powerless in the face of clerical self-interest. John Paul II, arguably, never really comprehended the problem at all. He tolerated for an unconscionable period of time the leadership of Cardinal Groer of Vienna, a prelate who lost the confidence of all save one of his fellow Austrian bishops, and whose tally sheet of seminarian abuse was egregious; John Paul II refused to censure a Polish archbishop known for his sordid record of abuse and protected for the longest time the prince of perverts, Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ.
John Paul II didn’t tolerate depravity in the ranks; he just didn’t believe it. Benedict XVI entertained no illusions as to its presence. But it is Francis who has decided to act with more than sanctions and outrage. He will scour the ranks with his reforming zeal.
He has set a new tone of accountability. Whether all the bishops should resign – after all, there is proportional culpability – the simple fact that an entire national hierarchy has offered to do so is a testament to the Pope’s moral earnestness.
Francis may live on the Tiber, but he has crossed the Rubicon.