Pope Francis is perhaps most controversial for his theological positions or his populist progressive sentiments, but what is often overlooked in evaluations of this lightning rod of a papacy is his absolutely abysmal record on clerical sex abuse. He has talked tough at times about clerical abuse. He’s even published guidelines on how it should be handled. But I’ve been asking where the pope really stands on clerical sex abuse since 2015 — and with good reason.
When I read the story today about the forced resignation Bishop Michael Hoeppner of Crookston, Minnesota over sex-abuse coverup, I was immediately struck by the contrast between his case and others that are similar, and even more well known.
According to The Pillar, Hoeppner, age 71, has resigned, at the direct request of Pope Francis, 18 months after an investigation began into allegations that he coerced a sex abuse victim into recanting his claim. The investigation turned up at least one other major failure — the decision to leave a priest in ministry who admitted to inappropriately touching a 5 year old child when he was 14, and having had sexual fantasies about minors during his ministry. (The priest in question was himself sexually abused as a child.)
The victim of coercion, a married deacon who was molested by a priest of the diocese as a teenager, sees Hoeppner’s removal as a “warning to those in charge who want to continue to punish and abuse survivors even after the initial abuse.”
“Hopefully now the Church is now done tolerating cover-ups and the mishandling of these cases,” he said.
I wish I shared his optimism. If Hoeppner’s case highlights anything, it’s how differently other, more serious cases have been handled.
Why Is Hoeppner Different?
Hoeppner was the first American bishop to be investigated under the new guidelines set out in Vos estis lux mundi, a motu proprio letter on clerical sexual abuse published by Francis in 2019.
“The crimes of sexual abuse,” the motu proprio reads, “offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful. In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission.”
And yet it’s impossible not to wonder if Francis really means any of this.
Recall that the late Cardinal Godfried Danneels — may God have mercy on his soul — stood on the loggia with Francis on the evening of his papal election, no doubt a reward for his role in Bergoglio’s ascent to power via the machinations of the so-called St. Gallen Mafia. Danneels was again invited personally by Francis to participate in the Synod on the Family in 2015.
The man lurking with a triumphant look on his face in the shadows in the photo above is the same Danneels who was caught on tape attempting to convince a sex abuse victim not to report the abuse perpetrated against him for over a decade by his own uncle, Roger Vangheluwe, the bishop of Bruges, until after Vangheluwe could retire. Henry Sire gives troubling detail in his book, The Dictator Pope:
A few months after his retirement, in April 2010, Danneels was especially under a cloud of scandal, being accused of having covered for a protégé bishop who admitted to having sexually abused a minor, his own nephew. In 2010 it was revealed—by the publication of an audio recording—that Danneels had told the victim to keep quiet and not cause trouble for the soon-to retire Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Bruges, even suggesting that the victim ought to “ask forgiveness.” Before the recordings were released, Danneels had denied all knowledge of sexual abuse by clergy or cover-ups. But a whistleblowing priest, Rik Devillé, later claimed that he had warned Danneels about Vangheluwe in the mid-1990s. Because the legal statute of limitations had expired, Vangheluwe was never charged for his crimes, though he issued public apologies to the victims.
Following this, a wave of complaints of hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by clerics over a twenty-year period prompted an intervention by police who raided Danneels’s house and the diocesan offices. Computers and files were seized, including all the documentation gathered by the diocesan commission on the abuse allegations. The cardinal was later questioned by prosecutors for ten hours but no charges were laid.
For reasons that remain unclear, the seized evidence was declared to have been inadmissible, the documents returned to the archdiocese and the investigation was abruptly closed. This despite the fact that individuals had come forward with almost five hundred separate complaints, including many that alleged Danneels had used his power and connections to shield clerical sex abusers. Peter Adriaenssens, the chairman of the sex abuse commission launched by Danneels’s successor, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, complained to the prosecutors about the raids, saying the result was that his team had lost all 475 dossiers they had collected on abuse allegations. The commission was dissolved and no further investigations ever undertaken, despite Adriaenssens having said that about fifty of the dossiers implicated Danneels.
Here are some other significant cases:
- Most noteworthy is the pope’s alleged coverup of the abuse of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a prolific fundraiser for the Church and a man tasked with helping Francis get elected. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who claims to have warned the pope about McCarrick personally in 2013, has stated emphatically, “Pope Francis is deliberately concealing the McCarrick evidence.”
- Bishop Juan Barros, who, having been accused of being present and watching while a priest, Fr. Fernando Karadima, carried out sexual abuse against minors. Karadima was found guilty of sexual abuse by the Vatican in 2011. Barros, a Karadima protégé, was nevertheless installed as the ordinary of Osorno, in Chile in 2015, even though five members of the pope’s own anti-abuse commission expressed “concern and incredulity” over the assignment. The appointment was met with riotous protests by locals. Francis, who received a letter from the victim that same year, nevertheless went on to say in reaction that the community in Osorno “is suffering because it’s dumb.” He accused the sex abuse victims of “Calumny,” retorting, “There is not one shred of proof against [Barros].” Francis revealed that Barros had tried to resign amidst the controversy, but the pope would not allow it, instead demanding “proof.” It wasn’t until June of 2018, when the pressure had become overwhelming, that Barros finally got the boot. It is unclear what connection Barros had to Francis — he seems mostly to show this kind of favor only to loyal friends — but it’s possible that the connection is through Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, who I’ll discuss in the next bullet.
- Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz was a member of the original C9 — the pope’s advisory council of 9 cardinals who were supposed to help him implement his “reforms.” Errázuriz was accused by some of Karadima’s victims of blocking the prosecution of Karadima’s crimes. The appointment of Errázuriz to the C9 was described by one of the victims as feeling like a “kick in the face from the pope”. Errázuriz was quietly removed from the C9 in December of 2018 with a public note of thanks for his work, and without any evidence of official reprimand.
- Fr. Mauro Inzoli, according to Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing for The Week in January of 2017, “lived in a flamboyant fashion and had such a taste for flashy cars that he earned the nickname “Don Mercedes.” He was also accused of molesting children. He allegedly abused minors in the confessional. He even went so far as to teach children that sexual contact with him was legitimated by scripture and their faith. When his case reached CDF, he was found guilty. And in 2012, under the papacy of Pope Benedict, Inzoli was defrocked.”But, Dougherty notes, “Don Mercedes was ‘with cardinal friends,’ we have learned. Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, now dean of the Roman Rota, both intervened on behalf of Inzoli, and Pope Francis returned him to the priestly state in 2014, inviting him to a ‘a life of humility and prayer.’ These strictures seem not to have troubled Inzoli too much. In January 2015, Don Mercedes participated in a conference on the family in Lombardy.”
After civil authorities convicted Inzoli of eight offenses — with another 15 beyond the statute of limitations — he was sentenced to five years in prison. Francis was forced to re-implement the laicization he had previously lifted.
- Cardinal Coccopalmerio, implicated in the Inzoli case, also petitioned Pope Francis to give an apartment in the building of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to his secretary, Msgr. Luigi Capozzi, for whom the cardinal is said to have also requested elevation to the episcopacy. This was the same apartment later raided by Vatican police, where they were said to have broken up “a drug-fueled, homosexual debauched party.” The Cardinal Coccopalmerio himself was reportedly an attendee at the orgy.In 2018, Coccopalmerio was accused of promoting “an attitude of indulgence” at the CDF towards priests accused of sexual abuse. According to Benjamin Leven, who made the allegations at the German-language Herder Korrespondenz, Coccopalmerio “generally spoke against using laicization as a punishment for a priest” and “regularly proposed light penalties” for abusers. In the same essay, Leven alleged that it was the pope himself who stopped a plan to “establish a permanent criminal tribunal for bishops” accused of malfeasance in abuse cases.
In 2019, Coccopalmerio was one of two “high-ranking cardinals close to Pope Francis” accused of having “stopped an investigation of a seminarian accused of abusing multiple adolescents who serve at Pope Francis’ masses.”
More detail could be offered here on names like Msgr. Battista Ricca, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, and likely others. I’ve covered all of them at one time or another. If you’d like more detail, I’ll refer you back to the summary overview of Francis’s “embarrassing friendships” by Marco Tosatti published here.
As Archbishop Viganò said in an interview with the Washington Post, Pope Francis is “doing close to nothing to punish those who have committed abuse,” and also “doing absolutely nothing to expose and bring to justice those who have, for decades, facilitated and covered up the abusers.”
But this sounds like merely an accusation of neglect. What if the reason for this pattern of behavior is more sinister? It seems pertinent to recall here the reporting of George Neumayr of the American Spectator in the summer of that same year. After traveling to Argentina, Neumayr uncovered a fair bit of resentment in the pope’s home country. He also described a particularly malevolent mode of operation attributed to the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires:
“Bergoglio would call up those investigating, say, a pederast priest and tell them to back off,” a Buenos Aires Church insider told me. “He then would inform the offending priest of his intervention and then use that to extract total obedience from him.” Many such priests were in Bergoglio’s debt.
Some have wondered why as pope Bergoglio has surrounded himself with so many crooks, creeps, and degenerates. But that is no mystery to Argentine Catholics. “He did the same as archbishop,” says one. “He uses their secrets to control them.”
Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is the explanation: a naked lust for power, and a willingness to use anyone and anything to obtain and maintain it. It may simply be the case that Francis will go to great lengths to protect those who have been loyal to him, or who are especially favored by those loyal to him. The examples I cited above certainly seem to support this thesis.
What’s odd about the Hoeppner case is the fact that any action was taken by the pope at all. Even so, it’s a pretty soft landing. Hoeppner is retiring, not being sent to the desert to do penance. In fact, he’s even being allowed to offer his own “farewell Mass,” if you can believe it.
I suppose you could say Hoeppner is, in a way, being made an example to other bishops. One could easily imagine the implicit message: “Be useful to me, or wind up like this one.”
But if going into early retirement on your own terms is as harsh as it gets, the only real message is: “You have practically nothing to lose no matter what you do.”
Which means it likely won’t be the last story like this we’ll hear about.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.