Papal credibility at the crossroads
Nice of Pope Francis to pay tribute to the dead firefighters of Barracas but how much substance lies beneath this gesture and many others since the Buenos Aires archbishop became head of the Catholic Church almost a year ago? Not very much, according to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has slammed the Vatican’s inaction over cracking down on pederasts. Nor is the UN committee being unduly impatient — it took Pope Francis fully nine months even to announce the creation of a commission to study sex abuse within the Church (a classic delaying tactic in itself, at least according to Juan Domingo Perón, who famously said: “If you want something to fail, create a commission for it”) with precious little advance since then. The gestures in which the Argentine Jesuit so excels are all which can reasonably be expected in the honeymoon period of any leader but with his first anniversary as pontiff rapidly approaching, Pope Francis should be moving past this stage by now.
Most of the UN committee’s demands can be summed up as placing children first — the core of its mission. This is precisely what the Church fails to do when it refuses to end impunity and the code of silence protecting perpetrators, transferring offenders rather than probing or punishing them in any way — nor has the training of priests been updated to counter abuse since the issue came to light. It is also curious that such a highly centralized institution as the Catholic Church (surely its most salient distinguishing feature when compared with the multiplicity of Protestant denominations and sects) should disclaim any control over its dioceses and parishes around the world — an unsatisfactory response. Even now (since 2010) the Vatican will not go beyond ordering bishops to report abuses when required by law enforcement authorities — there is nothing towards the Church uncovering and reporting these crimes on its own initiative. In the law of the Pope’s native country, covering up a felony is also a crime in itself normally punished by imprisonment of up to 15 years in the most serious cases or at least a fine for minor offences. And yet the Church has no provisions for prosecuting or punishing members of its hierarchy who protect predatory priests.
A superstar for millions of people, Pope Francis ended up 2013 anointed as “Person of the Year” on the front page of Time magazine but then we are also told not to judge a book by its cover.