A Church in Crisis: Pope Francis and the Sex Abuse Scandal

Featured Image source: Phillip Halling, licenced under creative commons

In recent years, the Catholic Church has been embroiled in a sex scandal of vast proportions; once claiming to be ‘holier than thou’, investigations of the likes of Cardinal George Pell and Pierre de Castelet have rung alarms bells in Joe Public that all is not as it appears. Although accusations of paedophilia within church ranks were first covered by the American and Canadian media in the 1980s, allegations of such a nature have once again come under the global spotlight. The spread of this predatory abuse of minors is more rampant that one can bear to imagine; in a 2004 Church commissioned study, it was reported that more than 4,000 Roman-Catholic priests had been involved in sex abuse allegations, the child victims of which numbering over 10,000. With such harrowing statistics, it is no wonder that the Catholic Church must now make a desperate bid to retain any kind of legitimacy or authority once handed to them without question.

Increasingly heralded as the progressive force the Catholic Church needs to reform its archaic identity, Pope Francis has been on the forefront of the public relations nightmare that is clerical sex abuse. Acting as the liberal figurehead of the Church, the Pope recently called for the first-ever Vatican summit to be held on the topic in late February. The summit was to be an international congregation of bishops who were to lay particular focus on the details of the recent scandal and discuss how to better respond to victims of sex abuse in the future. However, the ‘Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church’, as it was officially known, produced few satisfactory conclusions and was critiqued for being too narrow in its scope to prevent such abuse from re-occurring.

One of the primary concerns posed at the summit’s programme was the superficial discussions on Church transparency, particularly when considering the role destroyed documents have played in covering up child sex abuse within its ranks. Yet, as some of its clergy would argue, transparency in the Church would serve to erode its traditional hierarchical structure by demystifying the religious order, and perhaps even revealing other uncouth secrets behind the institution. Thus, the Vatican is currently at a point of crisis between the demand of a liberal laity for transparency and the traditional authority of the clergy in maintaining a level of opacity in their affairs.

Source: Phillip Halling, licenced under creative commons

However, it is hard to assess how far Pope Francis is acting as a liberal forerunner out of a genuine desire to reform the Church from the inside, or whether pressure from outside groups has driven Catholic culture to adapt for survival. Since his appointment in 2013, Francis has displayed a commitment to a progressive momentum in his global outlook; as evidence by his 2013 comment “who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuality, and his opening of a ‘mercy window’ in 2015 for women who have undergone abortions to confess and be absolved of their sins. However, vast doctrinal change to align the Church with the Pope’s personal liberal views has not yet been enacted; and with the controversial foundation of his Papacy further challenged by the sex abuse allegations, it is unlikely we will see extensive reforms soon.

Such a ‘crisis of credibility’ has been recognised by the Pope himself this January, when he condemned American bishops for causing divisions within the Church in the fallout of the sex abuse scandal. Back in the Vatican, numbers of pilgrims and tourists travelling to St Peter’s square have been dwindling, evidencing the impact of the criticism directed at the religious institution. Rebuilding trust with the laity, in Francis’ view, is the only way the Papacy can retain its legitimacy.

Yet, with all his talk of reconciliation for victims over shifting blame, Pope Francis neither provided a detailed plan on how the Church would prevent abuse in the future or placed binding rules on how clergymen accused of sexual abuse should interact with law enforcement authorities. For victims of such abuse, the summit resolved little, and it seems likely future cover-ups in the Church will occur. For now, the future of Pope Francis’ legacy will be determined by the grace with which he handles this scandal. This is no mean feat, as not only will he have to work to facilitate healing of past victims, he is also tasked with reforming a divided Church to not support such horrors again.

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