Sexual Abuse and the End of Papal Deference

COMMENTARY: The Chilean bishops’ visit to Rome demonstrated the newfound willingness of bishops to push back publicly against objectionable actions.

Pope Francis received in a private audience members of the Episcopal Conference of Chile on Jan. 14.
Pope Francis received in a private audience members of the Episcopal Conference of Chile on Jan. 14. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

As depicted in the television series The Crown, a member of the House of Lords publicly criticizes the Queen’s old-fashioned and “priggish” ways as out of keeping with a “new” Britain. In a bit of creative license, the Queen meets secretly with Lord Altrincham to seek his counsel. What is it that has changed? What is part of the old Britain that no longer holds?

“The age of deference, Ma’am,” Lord Altrincham replies, speaking in 1957.

That may well describe what is going on now in regard to the Supreme Pontiff and bishops, driven by the handling of sexual-abuse scandals by Pope Francis. The extraordinary visit of the leadership of the Chilean episcopate to Rome this week indicated that.

The visit marked the anniversary of the disastrous visit of Pope Francis to Chile in January 2018, the aftermath of which led to the Holy Father sending an investigator to Chile. In April he wrote a letter to the Chilean bishops, castigating them for their negligence and malfeasance and blaming them for “misinforming” Rome, holding them responsible for the Holy Father’s serious mistakes regarding Chile. In May the entire Chilean episcopate was summoned to Rome to be chastised in person. That meeting ended with all the bishops submitting their resignations (seven of which have been accepted).

The Chileans took it all meekly, even though it was already publicly known that their leadership had quite well-informed Pope Francis on the critical matter of Bishop Juan Barros and begged him not to transfer him to a new diocese — the spark that led to the conflagration of the Chilean Church. Deference to the Holy Father won the day.

Not so this week. The Vatican News report of the meeting noted that the papal visit last year was “largely overshadowed by abuse scandals and accusations of mishandling of cases by some of the country’s bishops.”

Actually, it was the Pope’s decisions that overshadowed the visit, but a certain latitude with the truth is expected from official public-relations bureaus. What followed was not expected.

Vatican News went on to quote the secretary-general of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Luis Fernando Ramos Pérez, characterizing their conversation with Pope Francis as “frank and fruitful.”  

“Frank” discussions is the near-universal code that press officials use to characterize highly contentious diplomatic meetings. That the Vatican itself would use the term to characterize a papal meeting with bishops is striking.

Lest there be any doubt about what the Chileans meant by “frank,” Bishop Ramos characterized the meetings in an interview with Crux as a move toward rebuilding trust between the Holy Father and the Chilean bishops, implying that Pope Francis has lost their trust.

“It’s a long process,” Bishop Ramos said, indicating the degree of offense taken in Chile by the Holy Father making the bishops a scapegoat for his transfer of Bishop Barros.

It was in Chile last year that the age of deference by bishops toward the Holy Father took a decisive turn. After Pope Francis made comments accusing his critics of making false charges, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, directly rebuked the Pope’s statement. For a senior cardinal to publicly dress down the Pope was unprecedented. That the Holy Father found himself compelled to accept the reprimand was the true earthquake; he no longer could insist upon the deference that he was not being given.

This is new territory, and the consequences are only slowly being seen — for good and for ill. At the American bishops’ meeting in November, the decision of the Holy Father to postpone votes on American reform proposals was publicly criticized by the bishops present, including their president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

The most astonishing statement came from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who argued that when it comes to telling the truth, the “Holy Father should be given the benefit of the doubt.” That’s not deference; it’s damning with faint praise.

The castigation model preferred by the Holy Father — whether speaking to the Roman Curia or writing to the U.S. bishops earlier this month on retreat — depends upon the bishops accepting it without protest. That can no longer be assumed, a new dynamic to be taken into account ahead of the sex-abuse summit in Rome next month.

The age of deference has been winding down for several generations. The days of when officials would kneel during brief meetings with the Holy Father and he would take all his meals alone have long ended. In the early years of St. John Paul II, it was quite common for theological dissenters and religious orders in turmoil to make heated public criticisms of the pope.

But bishops generally held their tongues. Even when bishops were summoned for (private) castigation, such as the Dutch bishops in 1981 or the Australian bishops in 1998, public deference was maintained. That is no longer the case.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.