December 11, 2013
When forgiving may not be divine
In the last six months countless thousands, if not millions of words have been written about Pope Francis but this apparently minute scrutiny of the new global superstar seems to be missing at least one detail which is not minor — his opinion of Father Julio César Grassi, whose conviction for child-molesting at a children’s foundation has just been upheld. Or perhaps rather more to the point (since Pope Francis now has a universal Church in his charge), the opinion of Jorge Bergoglio who was the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires during all the 11 years which the saga of the Grassi case have lasted so far without any known views on the issue.
Yet however intriguing this question whose answer will also carry some significance for the future of the Church, this issue goes beyond both Father Grassi and Pope Francis. As far as the Grassi case is concerned, there is a need to ask not only about the apparent silence of the man who was Buenos Aires archbishop until early this year but about the Argentine Church on the ground here and now which does not seem to be doing anything to sanction or condemn Father Grassi. Yet the latter is far from being the only or worst case of an errant priest. If the phrase were not so singularly unfortunate in this context, it might almost be said that Father Grassi’s offences are child’s play compared to the crimes against humanity of the former Buenos Aires provincial police chaplain Christian von Wernich, convicted in 2007 on 34 counts of kidnapping, 37 of torture and seven of homicide. The Church has had rather more time to react to this than to Grassi’s conviction which was only upheld this week and yet Von Wernich has never been unfrocked — indeed, as Church spokesmen have admitted, the former police chaplain continues to hold mass at Marcos Paz prison where he is serving out his life sentence along with various others of his partners in crime. Such indulgence contrasts with the sanctions slapped on theological or ideological dissidents or on priests seeking to form a family.
Saddled with an almost conservative image while running the Buenos Aires archdiocese (not even his consistent encouragement of slum priests was widely known before this year), Pope Francis continues to make huge strides towards buttressing a profile as a progressive Church leader with a new interview this week in which he disowns ever having sympathized with the right. Yet the Grassi case is one example of the various challenges confronting him to translate the important symbolism of his words and gestures into real life.