Pope Francis has done many great things. But on sex abuse, he hasn’t done enough.
My mother used to say that a man will sit in his living room and talk about how to save the world, while his wife is outside with a hammer and nails, fixing the front steps.
Ten years into the Francis papacy and this is how I feel, as a member of the church, and specifically as a woman in the church. We’ve been hearing these living room lectures for a decade now. We’ve heard about openness and going out to the margins and smelling like the sheep and not judging, and we’ve heard about reform.
How are the front steps? Do people take a look at the Catholic Church and think, “How safe and welcoming!”?
When Pope Francis was elected, I was thrilled. The photos and stories that circulated seized my heart and made me feel like something incredible was about to happen. I saw him riding incognito on a bus, refusing to take advantage of his high office to grab a limousine. I saw him washing the feet of Indigenous women comfortably breastfeeding their babies, and no one was freaking out about modesty or decorum or custody of the eyes. I saw him standing, apparently heavy with distress, at the moment of his election, feeling the unwelcome weight of the duty that had been placed on his head, and I thought this spoke well of him, that he wasn’t grasping for power. And I saw him waving cheerily up at a photographer over his car a few months later, and I thought this spoke well of him, too, that he had chosen to make the most of where he was. He seemed to love everybody. He seemed to see people, especially the unseen, especially the overlooked, the wounded. My hopes were especially high for how he would handle the sexual abuse crisis.
It has been 10 years. He has done many great things. But he was perfectly poised to make a difference with the sex abuse crisis, and the world was perfectly poised to applaud him if he did.
I thought: He is going to do great things. He’s going to challenge us all. This is a man who will listen to us, who will cut through the nonsense, who will do things in a way that makes sense, who won’t be flattered, who will stand up for the little ones. Things are finally going to be different this time. I had tearfully, painfully accepted the fact that Benedict and John Paul II had fumbled the sex abuse issue badly. And it looked like Francis would be different.
It has been 10 years. He has done many great things. But he was perfectly poised to make a difference with the sex abuse crisis, and the world was perfectly poised to applaud him if he did. He has squandered his chance.
Ten years is long enough to get used to a man’s style, and I have done this. I have put in my time writing countless little essays contextualizing his words for the skeptical. He is entitled to be the man he is, and to conduct himself in the way that he sees fit. Style is forgivable.
And I see that he has enacted some reforms of various kinds. He’s appointing women to roles in the curia. There has been some financial reform, and his annulment reforms, while implemented unevenly in the United States, may very well be more meaningful for poor Catholics in other countries. I do see that he has accepted early resignations from some bishops, and changed the way the guilty can be punished by the church.
But what is the one thing that everybody in the world still thinks about when you say “Catholic Church”? They think “sex abuse.” And that’s fair. It’s fair, because we haven’t fixed the root causes or even named all of the known abusers.
The responsibility for repairing the damage of sexual abuse and creating a church in which it never happens again falls on people at many levels of power in the church. But there are some repairs that only a pope can make, and he simply hasn’t been making them. And he could. He is capable of single-minded focus and drive and practical action when he thinks it’s important enough. He’s demonstrated this in his unwavering commitment to implementing restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass community. The sheep that smell like incense all got locked down good and tight.
This is reform? This is something different from what we’ve seen so many times before?
But too many of the sheep in red caps, and the ones who carry bishop’s crooks, are still allowed to wander at will. And this is why we are where we are. Because power and money and influence still give you protection in the church, no matter what you’ve done, and to whom. Bishop Juan Barros, when accused of covering up a pedophilic priest, got the benefit of the doubt. Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard remained in office after confessing to abusing a 14-year-old.
I tried to be patient while little seemed to change for the first several years of his papacy, but I was shocked when he lashed out at Chilean abuse victims, publicly casting doubt on their accusations, claiming he never received the evidence they provided. Then, when he was overtaken by outrage, he gave a tepid apology, saying his error was “due to a lack of truthful and balanced information.” That was in 2018. This is what he called his conversion moment. He promised to do better.
Meanwhile, this past November, the Vatican opened an investigation into Cardinal Ricard, but he still has not been suspended from public ministry despite admitting to assault, even though the alleged victim says she wrote to Pope Francis twice herself. This past weekend, Marko Rupnik, S.J., accused of serial sexual and psychological abuse of consecrated women, concelebrated Mass at a Roman basilica.
This is reform? This is something different from what we’ve seen so many times before? Priests might be removed from office, sometimes for years at a time, if there is an accusation. But bishops and cardinals, or at least those who are positioned well, still seem able to function in public ministry while they’re investigated. My own bishop was accused of sexual assault in his former Diocese of Rockville Centre (and the diocese stalled the case out by filing for bankruptcy, which has to be settled before the case can be resolved), and I doubt most people in the diocese even know about it. I don’t even think he’s guilty, but he sure didn’t get treated in the same way an accused priest would have while the investigation was underway.
You want to know what my hammer-and-nails fix looks like? A pay cut with every promotion in the church.
Some have argued that more women in the curia will help to hold more bishops accountable. And I have read stories of the women Francis’ has appointed being willing to push back when they meet resistance to change. But I’m skeptical that appointing more women to curia roles will be the deciding factor in reforming the church’s response to the abuse crisis. As more roles open up for women in the Vatican, we can hope that worthy candidates will fill them. But women are also human, so it might also mean they, too, could be caught up in the politics and power struggles there. They, too, may be tempted by the same vices. This is just human nature. Women aren’t magic. A woman who craves clerical power is not going to automatically make life better for the mom in the pew who’s worried about the safety of her altar boy son.
It’s not men who are the problem; it’s power.
You want to know what my hammer-and-nails fix looks like? A pay cut with every promotion in the church. Every time you get a fancier hat and a ritzier title, you also earn an extra day washing the dishes. By the time you’re a cardinal, you’re in charge of keeping at least two toilets clean. You don’t even want to know what the pope has to check off his list every day, but I’ll tell you this: By the time he’s done with his chores, he’ll be too tired to give any speeches about how to save the world. But he might actually have made some progress toward it.
My intention is not to humiliate anyone. The goal is to discourage men from high clerical status who cannot fathom the idea that their main job is to serve. The idea that bishops should be protected is so deeply entrenched that it is time we call for the office to be stripped down to its bare bones. Let them work, like parish priests work, and let them answer to someone whose hands are already callused with the use of tools. Then maybe we’ll see some progress with clericalism. Then we’ll have a truly holy church. Maybe.
What we have right now is a church that talks endlessly about openness and welcome, but the front steps feel hopelessly broken down. Who will fix them? Lay people who refuse to give up. Good priests. Good bishops. The Holy Spirit. That’s a formidable crew. It would be better still if the pope put his words into action. But either way, there is always hope that evil will not prevail. Christ still dwells inside these walls.
Update, March 31: This article has been updated to clarify that Diocese of Rockville Centre, not a diocese in New Hampshire, has filed for bankruptcy.