A Long Way to Go


Published February 22, 2024

The Catholic Thing

Five years ago, Pope Francis convened in Rome a “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church.” The first – and to date, only – summit of its kind brought together almost 200 participants, mostly bishops, including the presidents of 114 episcopal conferences, with the intention of “decisively” confronting the crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the Church.

At the time, the global Church was reeling from a series of major scandals involving clerical sexual abuse and the mishandling of abuse allegations against clerics, including bishops. Foremost among these was the case of Theodore McCarrick. But even before the McCarrick news broke in the summer of 2018, a string of high-profile cases had already put Rome’s handling – or mishandling – of abuse in the spotlight.

Five months before the McCarrick news broke in the United States, Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Chile and Peru was overshadowed by an embarrassing controversy over the case of Bishop Juan Barros. Pope Francis had, in 2015, appointed Barros bishop of Osorno in Chile despite objections from Chilean bishops concerned about Barros’ failure to properly handle abuse charges against the notorious abuser (and Barros’ former mentor) Fr. Fernando Karadima.

Pope Francis denounced Barros’ critics to the press as being guilty of calumny, insisted he had never seen any evidence of the charges against Barros. . .and then had to apologize and retract both statements after public pushback from the head of his own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Within a week, the Holy Father had reversed course and dispatched a special investigator to Chile. Within a few months, the pope had on his desk, not only the resignation of Bishop Barros but of every single bishop in Chile.

Before Barros, there was the case of Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta. A friend of Pope Francis from his days in Argentina, Zanchetta was one of the first appointments Francis made after being elected pope in 2013. Zanchetta lasted in his diocese a little over two years before allegations – ranging from financial mismanagement to having pornography on his phone to sexual abuse of seminarians – landed him in hot water. Pope Francis called him to Rome to, it’s been said, keep an eye on him, though there are other views.

In June of 2019, Zanchetta was charged by Argentine authorities with sexually abusing seminarians. At the time, Pope Francis told the press that a canonical trial for Zanchetta was imminent. Zanchetta’s COVID-delayed criminal trial ended in a conviction in 2022. Still no word on the status of his canonical trial.

Then there is the case of Fr. Marko Rupnik, the renowned mosaicist and former Jesuit, who stands accused of spiritual, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of more than two dozen women over the course of several decades. Rupnik was excommunicated, reinstated, ejected from the Jesuits, and then, implausibly, incardinated into a new diocese where he remains a priest in good standing. Only after tremendous outcry from victims, did Pope Francis agree to waive the statute of limitations so that Rupnik might face canonical proceedings. Those proceedings are, presumably, ongoing.

The summit of 2019 was followed by several changes – a lifting of the pontifical secret for certain cases, a reconfiguring of the Curia and an adjustment to how abuse cases were handled in Rome, and most significantly, the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi, which regulates procedures for handling allegations of abuse and neglect by bishops.

Surveying these three cases – Barros, Zanchetta, and Rupnik – raises concerns about what exactly has changed in the five years since Pope Francis’ abuse summit. The Barros case predates the 2019 summit, the Zanchetta case overlaps with the summit and its subsequent reforms, and the Rupnik case – though not the alleged abuse – has come to light after the summit. Yet there is little discernible difference in how each of these cases has been handled.

recent report from the Associated Press took a critical look at the persistent inadequacies in the way the Church processes abuse allegations. “[F]ive years later, despite new church laws to hold bishops accountable and promises to do better, the Catholic Church’s in-house legal system and pastoral response to victims has proven still incapable of dealing with the problem.”

Much of the AP article focuses on the lack of procedural consistency and transparency from Rome. Basic considerations of accountability – acknowledging when an allegation has been received, indicating the status of an investigation, announcing the conclusions and rulings of particular cases, publishing case law – remain frustratingly elusive. There are additional concerns about the ability of the Curia (especially the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith) to handle the requisite case load given current constraints on budgets and personnel.

But these practical and procedural challenges are relatively minor compared to the larger challenge facing the Church and this pontificate.

In the wake of the 2019 summit, I wrote the following:

Pope Francis is right to be wary of legalistic and bureaucratic “remedies” to what is fundamentally a spiritual and moral crisis. But given everything we know about how episcopal and priestly malfeasance has been handled – or rather, mishandled – in recent decades, there is reason to wonder whether Pope Francis’ highly personal, even ad hoc, pastoral approach to wayward bishops is the most prudent model for the Church today. Time will tell.

Five years on, those concerns remain. Pastoral solicitude for (accused) sinners, while central to the Church’s mission, is in no way incompatible with, let alone a substitute for, the rigorous and impartial administration of justice. Transparency is a pastoral necessity. Good law, impartially applied, is a pastoral necessity.

In today’s world, no amount of goodwill can overcome the scandal created by even the appearance of partiality. The even-handed administration of justice is necessary to protect the accused, the accusers, and the countless millions who are scandalized by a Church that seems to make the same blunders again and again.

On that front, the Church still has a long way to go.


Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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