These are not easy times for Pope Francis. Within two days he received strong criticism for Catholic priests’ sexual abuse of more than a thousand children in Pennsylvania. He was also confronted by Ireland’s Prime Minister and then by a high officer of the Catholic Church.
During his recent visit to Ireland, the first papal visit in almost 40 years, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister, told Pope Francis, “Magdalene Laundries, Mother and Baby Homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions, and clerical child abuse are stains on our state, our society and also the Catholic Church [Magdalene Laundries, and Mother and Baby Homes are places where nuns mistreated single mothers and illegally gave their children up for adoption]. Wounds are still open and there is much to be done to bring about justice and truth and healing for victims and survivors.”
While the Pope listened as Varadkar talked about the children abused in Pennsylvania detailing the “brutal crimes perpetrated by people within the Catholic Church and then obscured to protect the institution at the expense of innocent victims.” This is a story,” he said, “all too tragically familiar here in Ireland.”
Not all of Varadkar’s words were critical of the Church. In measured tone he told Pope Francis, “Holy Father, we thank you for your care for the Earth, for emphasizing the urgent challenge of climate change, and for reminding us of our responsibilities. We thank you for the empathy you have shown for the poor, for migrants and for refugees.”
But Varadkar also added, “There can only be zero tolerance for those who abuse innocent children or who facilitate that abuse. We must now ensure that from words flow actions. Above all, Holy Father, I ask for you to listen to the victims.”
Prime Minister Varadkar made his position clear on other topics where there is divergence with the Church’s position saying, “We have voted in our parliament and by referendum to modernize our laws –understanding that marriages do not always work, that women should make their own decisions, and that families come in many forms including those headed by a grandparent, lone parent or same-sex parents or parents who are divorced.”
Varadkar’s words echoed a similar –but even stronger stand—taken by his predecessor, Enda Kenny. In 2011, Mr. Kenny openly confronted the Vatican for its handling of the children’s abuse question, and for failing to cooperate with the investigation carried out by the Irish government.
Pope Francis responded, “I cannot fail to acknowledge the grave scandal caused in Ireland by the abuse of young people by members of the church charged with responsibility for their protection and education.” And added, “It is my hope that the gravity of the abuse scandals, which have cast light on the failings of many, will serve to emphasize the importance of the protection of minors and vulnerable adults on the part of society as a whole.”
Just as Pope Francis was ending his visit to Ireland, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who was apostolic nuncio in Washington D.C. from 2011 to 2016, accused Pope Francis and several senior prelates of complicity in covering up Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s allegations of sexual abuse. Archbishop Viganò claimed that Pope Francis knew about sanctions imposed on then-Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, but not only chose to repeal them and made him his trusted advisor.
Archbishop Viganò said that Pope Francis “is abdicating the mandate which Christ gave to Peter to confirm the brethren,” urged him “to acknowledge his mistakes” and “set a good example to cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them.” The Vatican press office refused to respond to Archbishop Viganò’s letter.
These are trying times for Pope Francis and for the Catholic Church. The determination with which abusers are punished and effective policies are put in place to prevent further abuses will be an indication of how seriously Pope Francis decides to reform the Church and honor the survivors of abuse at the hands of catholic clergy.