Do Vatican Officials See Abuse Crisis as a Referendum on the Pope?

ANALYSIS: Many U.S. Catholics wonder how much time the Pope needs to initiate a comprehensive response to a crisis they view as systemic: more complex than the situation of any particular abusing priest or bishop, and broader in scope than the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.

Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick July 23.
Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick July 23. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta told reporters Monday that Catholics should “trust Pope Francis that there is going to be a solution” to the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis.

The support of bishops from around the world, Archbishop Scicluna said, means that the Pope is now “empowered” to do what he wants for the Church, namely, “to make the church a safer place.”

Archbishop Scicluna, a longtime Vatican point man on the prosecution of sexual abuse, was asked what he would say to those who are losing confidence in the pope’s ability to deliver solutions.

The archbishop’s answer was revealing: “Give him time.”

Many U.S. Catholics wonder how much time the Pope needs to initiate a comprehensive response to a crisis they view as systemic: more complex than the situation of any particular abusing priest or bishop, and broader in scope than the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told reporters last month that he had grown “impatient” waiting for the pope to respond to the crisis in the U.S. Other bishops have echoed that sentiment. For many U.S. Catholics, the time for a solution is now.

Archbishop Scicluna’s comments point to things that have become clear: that many Vatican leadership figures don’t fully understand U.S. Catholic sentiment about the current crisis, and that America’s burgeoning crisis of faith in Church leadership is a source of both confusion and concern.

At least some Vatican offices and officials seem to view the Archbishop McCarrick issue as a referendum on Pope Francis, concluding that those seeking answers to Viganò’s charges must be in some way opposed to the Pope, and that the only way to support Francis is to refrain from asking for Vatican accountability.

While Archbishop Viganò, by his tone and his comportment, might merit some of that criticism, it seems that some Vatican insiders have assigned political motives to anyone asking for answers to the questions raised by the past few months.

An hour after the Vatican announced Saturday an internal review of its files on Archbishop McCarrick, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life tweeted a link to the press release, with this admonishment: “Now STOP gossip, TRUST Holy See.”

On Oct. 7, the Vatican released a letter from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of its office for episcopal appointments, condemning the claims made by Archbishop Viganò, and suggesting that they could only be a “political plot” that could harm the Pope, and thus rupture the communion of the Church.

Ouellet validated a central point of Archbishop Viganò’s: that Archbishop McCarrick had been given Vatican instructions, through the nunciature, to limit his ministry — however those instructions were framed.  

At the same time, the cardinal seemed to suggest that Archbishop Viganò’s charges, and any investigation into them, were as much a referendum on the holiness and integrity of the Pope as an inquiry into the facts of who did what, and when. He wrote as much about character as he did about causes.

Cardinal Ouellett said that the Pope is a man of prayer, faith, and commitment to the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

“I cannot call into question his personal integrity, his consecration to the mission and, above all, the charisma and peace he enjoys through the grace of God and the strength of the Risen One,” he wrote.

Last week, at an event sponsored by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, a Nigerian bishop who has spent almost all of his priestly life in Rome put it a different way.

Speaking of Pope Francis, Bishop Gregory Onah of Nsukka said that those who “grumble about some of his mistakes,” fail to appreciate the pope’s holiness, humility and simplicity of life.

Those remarks demonstrate how very differently the crisis is viewed in the U.S. and in Rome.

To some extent the curialists have a point. There are American lay groups framing questions about sexual misconduct and governance in the context of broader narratives of Francis criticism, much of it inaccurate and quite vitriolic. That’s doing very little to get to the bottom of those questions.

But the most prominent U.S. bishops calling for an investigation say they are not doing so because they doubt the pope’s sincerity, his Christian charity, or his dedication to the Gospel. And few Americans bishops would view their concerns about the Church’s governance as “grumbling” about the Pope.

One American working in the Vatican told CNA that being admonished to stop “gossiping” by a leadership cadre under suspicion of misconduct cements, rather than allays, his suspicion of a cover-up.

U.S. bishops say they are calling for an investigation because they want the facts. They say they are trying to respond to a pressing pastoral crisis as best as they can.  Many of them recognize that any investigation might well harm the legacies of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who enjoy high favorability ratings in the U.S. But few of them, if any, consider the call for an investigation to be personal, or an ideological attack on Pope Francis.

Instead, the issue for many Catholics is that the scandals of this summer have broken their trust in the Holy See — and in many other ecclesiastical figures — and that they’re not sure who to trust. This is the issue U.S. bishops say they want to resolve.

In the minds of some Vatican officials, though, the call for an investigation is muddled together with the long-streak of anti-Francis sentiment they have perceived in the U.S. Church since at least the 2015 Synod on the Family.

Ironically, the most prominent bishop associated in the Vatican with an “anti-Francis wing” of the American Church is the one who did the most work to welcome the pope to the United States for the World Meeting of Families — Archbishop Charles Chaput, who hosted the Pope in 2015.

To make any headway, American bishops are going to have to distinguish their call for an investigation from the anti-Francis populist strain that has begun to occupy a place of significance in the U.S. Church. At the same time, Vatican officials are going to have to realize that American Catholics, their frustrations, intentions and their leaders, cannot be painted with one crude brush.

Until that happens, Americans and Vatican bishops will continue talking past each other, having distinct and practically unrelated conversations while very little gets done.

It seems highly unlikely that an internal investigation into Vatican files, at least in its current form, will satisfy many U.S. Catholics — despite an endorsement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

The investigation’s scope is quite limited, and its promises are narrow. It will only investigate the files it already has. That might yield answers to some of the questions raised by Archbishop Viganò, but it does not resemble the full-throated, on-the-ground inquiry that Pope Francis commissioned Archbishop Scicluna to conduct in Chile earlier this year.

No interviews with key personnel, victims or bishops have been announced, nor any review of diocesan archives and legal settlements. Moreover, the Vatican promises only to make some information “available in due time,” but with very little indication of when that will be, or what will be released.

To some observers, the announcement seemed a half-measure by design, and one with only a promise to make public results “in due course” as a measure of accountability.

In the long absence of a response from the Vatican to the bishops’ request, other voices have begun to fill the void- some investigating with high standards of objectivity and fairness, and others advancing outlandish narratives and agendas swallowed wholesale by many U.S. Catholics, who are eager for any explanation they can get their hands on. Without further information from the Vatican, those voices are likely to get louder, and less credible.

That problem has intensified division among U.S. Catholics, and diminished any sense in the U.S. of the moral authority of bishops, and of the pope.

Of course, the problem is not really an “American problem,” even if it is often described that way in Rome. Open questions remain about the handling of serial sexual abuse in Chile, which point to serious breakdowns of the Church’s system of reporting and accountability.

And the alleged mishandling of allegations against the now-deceased Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor seems to demonstrate that even when processes are put in place, without a culture of responsibility, integrity and accountability, clericalism and institutionalism can stand in the way of justice.

In the meantime, many American bishops have moved on from waiting for a Vatican response. They’ve hired prosecutors and judges to investigate their files and their policies. They’ve expressed openness to investigation from civil authorities.

A source close to the USCCB has told CNA that the dioceses where Archbishop McCarrick served have also requested assistance in their own investigations from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But even if that request is granted, those investigations, at least presently, remain distinct from the Vatican’s review.  

The U.S. bishops’ conference has announced as many preventative measures as it can, while waiting for its November meeting and still pressing for a full Vatican investigation.

“Transparency is the right path. People forgive the sin more than the cover-up,” Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles said in Rome last week. American bishops seem to understand that the specter of a cover-up will not soon be forgiven, and many are doing what they can to make things transparent.

Whether their efforts will be enough also remains to be seen.

It is worth noting the stakes of this crisis.

Americans have made much of the idea that bishops have lost much of their moral authority because of the sexual abuse crisis; bishops and priests have often said publicly that they have lost the trust of lay Catholics, and apologized, to varying degrees of effect, for that.

But the danger is that bishops perceived to have lost their moral authority will also be judged to have lost the authority of their offices, most especially their governing authority.

Consider the case of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who has been among those bishops facing the most persistent criticism.

Cardinal Cupich drew serious criticism in August when he argued, or appeared to argue, that investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and episcopal corruption would be a “rabbit-hole,” and that the Pope’s energies would be better spent addressing immigration and climate change. He said he’d been misinterpreted, and directed his priests to read from their pulpits a letter in his defense. His explanation did not have its desired effect, and, in fact, seemed to compound the anger many Catholics had expressed toward him.

Shortly thereafter, a Chicago priest and a Colombian priest working in Chicago were arrested in Miami for performing a sex act in public view, in close proximity to a playground. The timing could not have been worse for Cardinal Cupich. While their behavior was not Cardinal Cupich’s fault, it came less than a month after Cardinal Cupich said that the issue of homosexuality among priests was a “diversion that gets away from the clericalism that’s much deeper as a part of this problem.”

A petition began circulating among some Catholics calling for his resignation. It now has more than 20,000 signatories.

Criticism of Cardinal Cupich is set against the obvious and visible rift in the Church over the 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), a letter from Pope Francis on the pastoral care of families and married couples. To its supporters, Amoris expresses Pope Francis’ prioritization of mercy, within the context of orthodox but developing Catholic moral teaching.

To its critics, Amoris is confusing at best, and seems to endorse practices that defy the conventions of Catholic doctrine and Christian anthropology. The disagreement over that issue has been polarizing, and a source of confusion, frustration and resentment for Catholics on both sides.

Cardinal Cupich has figured prominently into that fight, as well. A vocal supporter of Amoris, he has said the Church is making a transformational “paradigm shift,” and introduced an understanding of the relationship between conscience and doctrine that many Catholics perceive to be relativism. He has hosted a series of closed-door seminars for select bishops on Amoris, at which theologians and canonists sharing his view were invited to present.

In that context, his emphasis on pastoral outreach to “LGBT” couples has been treated with suspicion — if not hostility — by some Catholics, who fear the cardinal intends a broad repudiation of Catholic sexual morality.

Amid all of that chaos, in the middle of the “summer of hell,” Father Paul Kalchik found a banner in his sacristy, which featured a cross imposed upon a rainbow flag symbolizing gay rights. He says the flag once hung in his Church’s sanctuary, under the leadership of a pastor he says was living an actively homosexual lifestyle.

Father Kalchik is a survivor of sexual abuse. He is also a longtime pastor, and an advocate for both the unborn and the homeless who live in his neighborhood. Cardinal Cupich is his bishop.

Father Kalchik decided to burn the flag, in a public ceremony, at the end of September. He announced to his parish that he would do so. Cardinal Cupich, likely thinking that such a public display would sow further chaos in the Church, had his staff instruct Father Kalchik not to burn the flag, the Chicago Archdiocese says.

In a recent interview, Father Kalchik said he was told only that he could not hold the particular public ceremony he was planning. He said he did not hold that ceremony. The flag was burned at a different time, by his parishioners, in his presence, he said. The archdiocese disputed that account.

The facts are not clear, but it seems the priest was subsequently disciplined by his bishop, and apparently ordered to seek counseling at an inpatient residential treatment facility, which he has not done.

Father Kalchik has been hailed as a hero in some circles, cast as a kind of martyr, a resistance figure praised by those who say, whatever the facts, that he rightly defied an unjust order from his bishop. His story is likely to spur other such stories.

That could have long-lasting effect. There is a difference between criticizing bishops, and perhaps even calling for their resignation, and denying outright their authority to govern their priests. But if the sexual abuse crisis spurs a populist movement of Catholics romanticizing priests, religious, or even lay communities who defy the governance decisions of diocesan bishops, chaos could ensue.

Earlier this year, many commentators predicted that the crisis would lead to a failure on the part of bishops to respect the rights of priests accused of misconduct. It might. But it seems like it might also lead to a widespread failure to respect the rights, and prerogatives, of diocesan bishops. That could foster chaos, and catalyze serious and formal divisions within the Catholic Church in the United States.

So what will happen? An apostolic visitation is unlikely. The Vatican’s actions will probably not satisfy discontented and frustrated American Catholics. Those Catholics might continue to be criticized, cast as adversaries of Pope Francis. Some of them will continue to encourage the rejection of episcopal and pontifical authority.

Who might address this crisis?

The Pope might still order an apostolic visitation, if it becomes clear that the bishops requesting one are not his adversaries or detractors.

Priests, religious, and lay Catholics can encourage cool heads and ecclesial unity, even while insisting on real investigations, transparency and cultural change.

And the U.S. bishops, could, at their November meeting, do much to heal the fracturing landscape of American Catholicism. It remains to be seen how the bishops will conduct themselves at that gathering. But while Vatican officials say the pope needs more time, it seems to many that the time for American bishops to act is drawing nigh.

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