A problem starts at the top and until addressed there, it will continue.
Pope Francis began his papacy five years ago offering hope for survivors after decades of clergy abuse. He publicly advocated a zero tolerance policy and set up a commission to advise him on safeguarding children. Yet, his actions and words to date have supported clergy abusers and those covering them up, not survivors. Proof in point is the Pope’s recent acceptance of Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation.
A Pennsylvania grand jury accused Wuerl of overseeing and engaging in a cover-up to protect child-molesting priests during his time as Bishop of Pittsburgh between 1988 and 2006. He allegedly mishandled the complaints by reassigning and/or reinstating priests with allegations levied against them, according to the report.
Wuerl initially downplayed the report and defended his record, but after a top Vatican official accused him of covering up inappropriate behavior by his predecessor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and faced with increasing pressure to step down, Cardinal Wuerl asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation.
How did Pope Francis respond? He complimented Wuerl’s “nobility,” supported his handling of abuse cases, and asked him to remain as the interim leader of the Archdiocese of Washington until a replacement is named and as an advisor on bishop appointments.
Earlier this year, he defended Bishop Juan Barros against cover-up accusations and stated that accusers were lying before eventually asking for resignations from 34 bishops. He also released a letter to all Chileans declaring that the Roman Catholic Church would “never again” tolerate “the culture of abuse and the system of cover-up that allows it to perpetuate.” Not only has he supported cover-ups, but also abusers like Cardinal Pell. Yet, as recently as last month, the Pope addressed the sex abuse scandals, saying the crisis is driving people away and insisted the church must change if it is to keep future generations.
Does this latest event signal that the Church under Pope Francis will not fulfill his promised policy? Terrence McKiernan, president of the online abuse database BishopAccountability, said the move by Pope Francis showed that “Cardinal Wuerl is more important than the children he put in harm's way. Until Pope Francis reverses this emphasis on coddling the hierarchy at the expense of children, the Catholic Church will never emerge from this crisis.” To clarify McKiernan’s assertion, however, yet another reversal by the Pope does not indicate progress. As history shows, Pope Francis has reversed his stance on individual cases numerous times. To declare zero tolerance and reform and subsequently act in opposition to those ideals is stagnancy, not progress. All the Pope has arguably done is squash the hopes of victims and break promises.
Will the “hierarchy” finally display some courage or compassion and put a system in place to consistently and uncompromisingly root out predators and restore trust in its followers? Or will this continue to be a case of too little, too late?
For a provocative, fact-based albeit fictional account of how these scandals play out in our civil justice system, pick up a copy of "Betrayal of Faith," the story of a courageous mother's fight for civil and criminal justice for her young sons against a predator priest and a cover-up at the highest levels of the church.