The papal visit to Chile confirmed beyond all doubt that the Church has failed to grasp the global dimensions of the abuse crisis. This failure began long before Pope Francis’s dismissive comments about Chilean abuse survivors last week, when he described accusations that a bishop had covered up a paedophile priest’s crimes as “calumny”.
Under Benedict XVI, Rome intensified its fight against clerical abuse across the world. It is difficult to pinpoint the moment that this effort went awry. But it arguably goes back to 2011, when the Vatican gave bishops’ conferences a year to draw up child protection guidelines. Shocking though it may sound today, many conferences – including that of Italy – had no standard procedure for dealing with abuse claims. When the deadline passed in 2012, only half of conferences had responded. That is, they had failed to provide even the most basic rules, despite being given a generous 12 months to do so.
What happened next is murky, but the Vatican seems to have simply given up. Certainly there were no reports of any bishops’ conferences being punished for flouting the deadline. Mgr Charles Scicluna, apparently the driving force behind the guidelines, was then transferred from his Vatican post to his native Malta.
Few mentioned the guidelines again after that. The Church had missed a critical opportunity to enforce a single global standard in the battle against abuse. When Pope Francis was elected, however, it had one more chance. Francis founded the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an advisory body helping him to promote “local responsibility” for child protection.
Yet the commission has been thwarted at every turn. In 2015 it urged the Pope to create a tribunal holding bishops accountable for mishandling abuse cases. Francis initially agreed, but appeared to backtrack a year later. As we write, the commission is in limbo. Its experimental three-year term has ended, but on Monday the Pope insisted that it would be renewed soon and that the delay was caused by the need to scrutinise proposed new members.
That is the background to the Pope’s highly damaging defence of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros. Even if, as defenders assert, the bishop is wholly innocent, it was wrong (as he acknowledged) for Francis to hit out at the prelate’s accusers, who include abuse survivors. The comments generated the worst headlines of his pontificate, including “The Pope causes more pain for priest’s victims” (New York Times) and “The Pope asks for forgiveness on sex abuse. But he refuses to act” (Washington Post).
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