It hasn’t been two weeks since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis I. Yet, the media and it seems the majority of Catholics have sought to define him as a humble man of simple tastes. The media has already noticed (and spilled a lot of ink) that Francis will do things differently than his predecessors such as 1)he asked for a blessing from the masses before imparting his Urbi et Orbi blessing upon his election, 2)he hasn’t worn the typical regalia of a Pope, even down to eschewing the red shoes and the gold cross, 3)he seems to prefer to speak extemporaneously as a pastor than from a prepared text as a professor, and 4)he’s not impressed with the trappings of his office like the papal motorcade or receiving the obeisance of the cardinals.
I get all this. My initial reaction to the man is that I like him, and I hope he is all the things that they are saying he is, and I especially hope that he carries his experiences as a priest and bishop to a poor country into his new post as Pope, and that he reminds Christians everywhere that we follow a humble carpenter who was crucified for standing against the oppressive authorities of his day—both religious and secular. So as a person of Christian faith (if not a very virtuous one), I wish and pray the best for Francis, and for the Church as a key institution in carrying the Good News of Christ to the world, along with hopes that he will carry messages of peace, reconciliation and renewal to all nations and peoples.
However, the important questions for readers of this blog will have to do with how Francis will govern the Church when it comes to the deep, longstanding and ongoing child abuse crisis. In terms of protecting children and weeding out the corrupt, clericalist culture of the Vatican that many experts have seen as fomenting the sexual abuse crisis in the first place, we just don’t know what he will do. Late last week a story was making its way around social media that the new Pope had met Cardinal Law, the disgraced former Cardinal of Boston and ordered him out of the Basilica of St. Mary Major. According to this story, the Pope also was preparing to send the 81-year-old to a monastery for penance. Unfortunately, that story seems to be untrue.
But there are a few steps, in my opinion, that would demonstrate to survivors that Francis is a true reformer and interested in protecting children. He could do the following: 1) make sweeping changes concerning curial appointments starting with the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (this is the Congregation primarily responsible for investigating priests accused of sexual abuse), 2) remove those bishops and cardinals who intentionally and knowingly failed to protect children from plainly abusive priests, 3) meet with survivors and their advocates to engage them in a collaborative, world-wide effort to protect children; and 4) demand transparency and accountability from every bishop and cardinal when it comes to child abuse.
Finally, Pope Francis needs to speak out, early and often, about the past failures and sins of the Church in the abuse crisis, making it clear that he takes the words of his Lord seriously, who told the disciples to “let the little children come unto me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14) and “it would be better for a man to have a millstone placed around his neck and be thrown into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Matthew 18:6). The office of the papacy is a sacred bully pulpit, as we have seen from recent popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This pope—who carries the name of one of Christianity’s most beloved, humble and honest saints—should be as bold as his namesake in calling the Church to repentance and in taking it as his mission, in the words that St Francis heard in his call, “go rebuild my Church.” It is my deepest hope that Pope Francis will speak out boldly, in the spirit of St Francis, and call the Church to deep and fundamental metanoia—repentance—concerning the abuse of children at the hands of its priests.