During a 45-minute press conference on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Rome, Pope Francis answered questions about whether the Holy See would be ready to act as a mediator to avoid a civil war in Venezuela, the problem of the sexual abuse of nuns by clergy in the Catholic Church and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The following text is based on a translation by a group of English-speaking journalists on the plane, including the author, and could be subject to modification when the Vatican provides an official text.
Is the Vatican ready to mediate to avoid a civil war in Venezuela?
Referring to the fact that Venezuela appears to be on the brink of a civil war, a Spanish-speaking journalist recalled that decades ago, the Holy See mediated a peaceful solution to the conflict between Argentina and Chile when the two countries were on the brink of war and asked the pope whether the Holy See is ready to engage in a similar mediation to avoid a civil war in Venezuela.
Pope Francis responded by acknowledging that the Holy See’s intervention under John Paul II in the Argentina-Chile conflict “was a very courageous act that avoided a war that was about to break out.” But he pointed out that “there are the little steps” that must be taken before such an intervention, and “the last [step] is mediation.” He said that in all diplomacy there are “little initial steps or facilitators” that are the result of “the closeness of one to the other, working to start a possible dialogue.”
If both Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó ask for the Holy See’s mediation, the pope said, “we are open to this.”
“One does this in diplomacy,” Francis said and, perhaps hinting that the Holy See was already taking such steps in Venezuela, added, “I believe my secretary of state could explainall the different steps it is possible to do.”
He confirmed that before his trip to Abu Dhabi “a letter had arrived, a diplomatic dossier from [Venezuela’s president Nicolás] Maduro.” But, he added, “I still have not read this letter.”
“We can see what can be done,” Francis said. “It is necessary [to act].” But he emphasized that “the initial conditions” for the Holy See’s intervention “are that both sides need to ask for it.” If both Mr. Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the president of the national assembly who has declared himself the interim president of the country, ask for such mediation, the pope said, “we are open to this.”
Pope Francis said that “it is the same when there is a problem between husband and wife and they go to the parish priest. One either wants it or doesn’t want it, but always it must be requested or wanted by both of the parties. This is the secret.”
The sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy
A journalist drew Pope Francis’ attention to the fact that last week “Women Church World,” a monthly magazine distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, published an article on the sexual abuse of nuns by clergy in the Catholic Church. In November, the International Union of Women Religious Superiors condemned such abuse and vowed to help sisters report it and seek justice. Given that in a few weeks the Vatican will hold a meeting on the abuse of minors by clergy, the pope was asked, “Can we expect the Holy See to do something also about this other problem, maybe with a document, guidelines?”
“It’s true,” Pope Francis acknowledged. “It is a problem. But let me backtrack [a little].” He said: “The mistreatment of women is a problem. I would dare to say that humanity has not yet matured. Women are [considered] second class, and it starts from there. No? It is a cultural problem, which eventually even leads to the killing of women.” Indeed, he said, “there are countries where the mistreatment of women leads all the way to the killing of women.”
“The mistreatment of women is a problem. I would dare to say that humanity has not yet matured.”
He admitted: “It’s true [that] in the church there have also been some clerics [who abused religious women], and in some cultures more strongly than in others. It’s not something that everyone does, but there have been priests and even bishops who have done what you say.”
“And I think it is still taking place,” the pope said, “because it’s not as though the moment you have become aware of something that it goes away. The thing continues.”
Francis then revealed, “We’ve been working on this for some time. We have suspended some clerics and sent some others away over this.” Moreover, without identifying whom he was referring to, he said, “I don’t know whether the trial on this is over. [We have] dissolved a few female religious orders which were very much tied to this.”
Pope Francis remarked, “I can’t say this doesn’t happen in my house. It’s true.” He asked, “Should something more be done?” and answered with a categorical “yes.”
“Do we have the will [to do more]?” he asked. He responded in the affirmative “yes.” “But it’s a path that we have been [working] on,” Francis added.
The Catholic Church owes much to the “courage" of then-Pope Benedict XVI for beginning to tackle the problem, Pope Francis told reporters. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger tried to investigate a congregation where women were allegedly being abused, he said, but the investigation was blocked.
Pope Francis did not provide more details but said that as soon as Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict, he called for the files he had compiled and began again.
The now-retired pope, he said, dissolved a congregation “because the slavery of women, including sexual slavery, had become part of it.”
Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican press office, said the dissolved congregation was the Sisters of Israel and St. John; he would not provide information about who initially blocked then-Cardinal Ratzinger's investigation.
After restating that “the problem exists,” especially in new orders and in certain regions of the world, Pope Francis concluded: “Pray that we can go forward. I want to go forward. We are working on it.”
The war in Yemen
As for Yemen, where millions of people risk starvation because of four years of war, the pope said he raised the situation there with government officials from the United Arab Emirates, an active member of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthi armed movement.
When asked if he had received any response to his appeal last Sunday to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, Francis said: “I know it is difficult to give an opinion after two days and after having spoken on the subject with a few people. But I can say that I found goodwill for starting the processes of peace. This I found. It was the common denominator among those with whom I have spoken to about the war-like situations. You mentioned that [situation] of Yemen, I have found goodwill for starting processes of peace.”
Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.