The head of the largest religion on earth understands the importance of first impressions. But you couldn’t tell that by his initial remarks the other day when he set foot in the US for the first time ever.
When elected pope, Francis made a spectacular first impression. He asked the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to bless him. (It’s usually the other way around.) The next day, he paid his own hotel bill and carried his own suitcase. And he continued in this humble, self-effacing way and so won the hearts of millions.
But last week, when he set foot in the US for the first time, his first impression was less successful.
Twice in two days, Pope Francis has made vague and brief references to the on-going abuse and cover up crisis, mentioning the pain of church staff but not the pain of abused children and betrayed parishioners. He refused to even call the scandal by its name.
In Washington DC, to bishops, the pontiff made virtually no mention of victims, offered no apology, praised US bishops being “courageous” and “generous” in the handling of the crisis.
Then, in New York, to priests and nuns, Francis said “You suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members.”
He also called the intractable scandal “difficult moments” (not a decades-old crisis that has no end in sight).
A day later, the Washington Post reported that Francis’ top public relations aide “was asked why the pope had spoken twice now about the abuse crisis, but never named it explicitly and focused on encouraging the clergy without speaking first about victims.”
And the New York Times noted the same troubling pattern – talking about how clergy child sex crimes and cover ups impact other clergy, not children or church-goers.
But Francis has made similar disturbing comments about the crisis before, claiming last year that “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have moved with transparency and accountability” on abuse “Yet the Church is the only one to be attacked.”
An innovator in other ways, this pope is a throwback on sexual violence. He talks and acts like the church hierarchy is the real victim in this crisis.
He seems humble and preaches “service” but like so many other clerics, Francis seems to put church officials above the rest of us.
Shortly into his papacy, Francis criticized “self-referential” church officials. But he seems to be falling prey to this temptation himself.
We in SNAP have long sought better papal actions more than better papal words. We still do. But this degree of insensitivity is hurtful. It deters victims, witnesses and whistleblowers from reporting child sex crimes, known and suspected. When in 2015, even this pope minimizes and mischaracterizes this crisis – calling it “difficult moments” for instance – where’s even the hope, much less the evidence, of change? Why bother speaking up if even Francis sees the scandal only through the eyes of clerics?
Later, as expected, he met with a tiny group of carefully-chosen victims in a carefully-choreographed setting. He softened and re-directed his words and ameliorated some of the harm he’d caused earlier in the week.
In the future, Francis will no doubt work harder to convey compassion. But last week, he dug a deeper hole for himself by these depressing, misguided remarks.