Where Does Pope Francis Really Stand on Clerical Sex Abuse?

Pope Francis speaks to Cardinal Godfried Daneels during the 2015 Synod.

Pope Francis speaks to Cardinal Godfried Danneels during the 2015 Synod.

At St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Pope Francis addressed the victims of clerical sex abuse in no uncertain terms:

I carry in my heart the stories, the suffering and the pain of the minors who were sexually abused by priests. I’m overwhelmed by the shame that people who were in charge of caring for those young ones raped them and caused them great damages. I regret this profoundly. God weeps! The crimes and sins of sexual abuse to minors can’t be kept a secret anymore. I commit to the zealous oversight of the Church to protect minors, and I promise that everyone responsible will be held accountable.

These strong words are exactly the sort of thing that so many people — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — have been wanting to hear.

But in the light of some of Pope Francis’s recent decisions, they ring tragically hollow.

We begin with the case of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, an always-controversial figure who recently revealed that he was part of a plot against Pope Benedict and in favor of the election of Bergoglio, whom he believed would help modernize the Church. Such support from Danneels may help to explain why, despite his troubled track record, he was personally invited to participate in the Synod on the family — for both sessions — even while manifestly orthodox prelates like Cardinal Burke were pushed out. But he was not only invited to the Synod. As Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register reported:

The Vatican listed him second in importance out of 45 delegates personally chosen by Pope Francis to participate in the upcoming meeting. He also took part in last year’s Extraordinary Synod as a papal delegate.

Just how controversial is Danneels? According to Pentin, he has been reported to have “advised the king of Belgium to sign an abortion law in 1990″, “said same-sex ‘marriage’ was a ‘positive development,’” and refused “to forbid pornographic, ‘educational’ materials being used in Belgian Catholic schools.”

Taken by themselves, these are surely sufficient cause for concern. But in a report to Voice of the Family, Elizabeth Yore, described as “an international child rights attorney who has provided legal and technical assistance to families of victims and the Belgian government in child abuse and child murder cases,” tells us of his sordid and long-standing record of protecting the perpetrators of clerical sexual abuse:

On April 8, 2010, the newly retired Cardinal Danneels received some visitors at his home. They were the relatives of the Bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, Danneels’ close friend. At this meeting, the nephew of Vangheluwe described a long and sordid 13 year molestation by his uncle, the Bishop of Bruges. Cardinal Danneels advised the nephew not to go public with the sexual abuse. During the meeting, Danneels advised the young man not to “make a lot of noise” about the abuse he endured from his uncle bishop because Vangheluwe was scheduled to retire in a year anyway. “It would be better that you wait,” advised Danneels, while also urging the young man to forgive his uncle.

“The conversation was tape recorded by the nephew and subsequently released to the press. Cardinal Danneels, the former head of Belgium’s Roman Catholic Church for 3 decades, could be heard on tape urging this sexual abuse victim to stay quiet and not disclose the abuse until after the bishop who repeatedly molested him over a span of 13 years could retire. After the release of the recording, Danneels did not dispute the authenticity of the conversation. A media firestorm was unleashed in Belgium, a country still reeling over institutional cover ups of child sex abuse.

“Bishop Vangheluwe admitted to the sexual abuse of his nephew and stepped down from his post shortly after the April 8 meeting between his nephew and Danneels. Because of the statute of limitations law, the Bishop of Bruges was never charged with the crime. However, the plot continues to thicken.

“The daily De Standaard newspaper reported that two former Belgian priests, Fathers Rik Deville and Norbert Bethune had personally informed Cardinal Danneels about Bishop Vangheluwe’s child sexual abuse several times between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Father Deville told the Associated Press that he told Cardinal Danneels about a number of sexual-abuse cases. “The cardinal sometimes got angry and said it was not my job, that I should not get involved,” Deville said.

“The Belgian Police conducted a surprise raid on the Cardinal’s residence and office looking for documents relating to clergy abuse and questioned the Cardinal for 10 hours. Although the Cardinal was never charged, the Catholic Church’s own investigation commission issued a 200 page report on 10 September 2010.

“According to the report, the commission heard allegations from 488 complainants, concerning incidents that took place between 1950 and 1990. The report contained testimony from 124 people. Two-thirds of the complainants were men, now aged in their 50s and 60s. As head of the commission, Dr. Peter Adriaenssens, a prominent and respected psychiatrist, disclosed that Cardinal Godfried Danneels name surfaced in 50 cases, not as an abuser, but as someone who knew of the sexual child abuse by the clergy.

The above-mentioned sex education materials in the Belgian Catholic schools also play a role in Danneels’ complicity, insofar as they contain a pedophilic element. From the same Voice of the Family report comes this account, drawn from Dr. Alexandra Colen, a member of the Belgian House of Representatives (warning – graphic language):

The sympathy for pedophile attitudes and arguments among the Belgian bishops during this period was no secret, especially since 1997 when the fierce controversy about the catechism textbook Roeach made the headlines. The editors of Roeach were Prof. Jef Bulckens of the Catholic University of Leuven and Prof. Frans Lefevre of the Seminary of Bruges. The textbook contained a drawing which showed a naked baby girl saying: ‘Stroking my pussy makes me feel groovy,’ ‘I like to take my knickers off with friends,’ ‘I want to be in the room when mum and dad have sex.’ The drawing also shows a naked little boy and girl that are ‘playing doctor’ and the little boy says: ‘Look, my willy is big.’

“The drawing also showed three pairs of parents. Those with the ‘correct’ attitude reply: ‘Yes, feeling and stroking those little places is good fun.’ This ‘catechism textbook’ was used in the catechism lessons in the catholic schools, until one day I discovered it among the schoolbooks of my eldest daughter, then 13 years old. On 3 September 1997 I wrote a letter to Cardinal Danneels, saying:

‘When I see this drawing and its message, I get the distinct impression that this catechism textbook is designed intentionally to make 13 and 14 year olds believe that toddlers enjoy genital stimulation. In this way one breeds pedophiles that sincerely believe that children actually think that what they are doing to them is “groovy”, while the opposite is the case.’

“I told Cardinal Danneels that, although I was a member of Parliament for the Flemish-secessionist party Vlaams Blok, I was addressing him as a Catholic parent ‘who wishes to remain faithful to the papal authority and also wishes to educate her children this way.’ I insisted that he forbid the use of this book in the catechism lessons: ‘This is why I insist – yes, the days of meekly asking are over – that you forbid the use of this “catechism book” in our children’s classrooms.’

“Because Cardinal Danneels refused to respond to requests to put an end to these practices, I and hundreds of concerned parents gathered in front of his palace on 15 October 1997. We carried placards with the text ‘Respect for parents and children,’ and we said the rosary. Cardinal Danneels refused to receive a delegation of the demonstrators. ‘I shall not be pressured,’ he said in the libertine magazine Humo on 21 October 1997. The Archbishop’s door remained closed when we demonstrated again on 10 December 1997.

“On 18 February 1998 we were at Cardinal Danneels’s door again, myself and a group of parents. Again the door remained closed. So on 18 March 1998 a group of two hundred parents went to the Papal Nuncio, the ambassador of the Vatican, in Brussels. But the Nuncio, who was a friend of Danneels, also refused to meet us. He had, however, alerted the police, who had several water cannons at the ready just around the corner.”

Why has this man been given a place of such prominence by Pope Francis in deciding issues pertaining to the good of Catholic families? What possible contribution could he make that would outweigh the egregiously immoral positions that have characterized his clerical career? What reason do we have to believe this is anything other than ecclesiastical cronyism, a thank you for helping to make possible Francis’ election to the papacy? As Damian Thompson of the Spectator writes, this is a “scandal that could engulf Pope Francis.” But Thompson also notes the sad reality that we face when it comes to addressing such major issues:

Fortunately for Pope Francis, the media aren’t interested in breaking his pontificate, which they realise is more fragile than it seems. Nor are most conservatives, who are mindful of his popularity in their home dioceses — and, despite everything, can’t help warming to the old boy.

The time for warming to him, despite his personal charisma, is past – but only to those who actually care about the truth.

The second case that must be considered is that of Bishop Juan Barros, Francis’s recent appointee as Bishop of Osorno in Chile. From the reporting of John Allen at Crux, we see this is an issue that crosses ideological boundaries. Allen wrote the following back in March, after Barros’ appointment:

Staffers in the Vatican paid to think about such things sometimes sit around trying to identify possible tipping points in the public romance with Pope Francis, meaning a calamity that might put a serious dent in his high approval ratings.

One no-brainer on the list would be a perception that he’s backtracking on “zero tolerance” when it comes to sexual abuse in the Church, and two recent story lines suggest it’s not an abstract worry.

First, Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press reported on Thursday that five members of the pope’s own anti-abuse commission have expressed “concern and incredulity” that Bishop Juan Barros has been given command of the Diocese of Osorno in Chile, despite his public record of defending the country’s most notorious abuser priest.

Those objections came on top of protests that forced Barros’ installation Mass to be cut short, as well as ongoing efforts by clergy and laity to ask Francis to rethink the appointment.


[I]t raises questions about the vetting process for bishops. How is it that Italian Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, the pope’s ambassador in Chile, didn’t see this coming and spare everyone the embarrassment?

In an interview with a Chilean news outlet on Thursday, Scapolo insisted that he didn’t hide anything from the Vatican in preparing the appointment. He said Francis confirmed it, and claimed that calls for Barros to be ridden out of town on a rail violate religious freedom.

All that may well be the case, but it still doesn’t explain why a clean record on the abuse scandals isn’t an absolute prerequisite for a leadership position in the Catholic Church in 2015. (Barros was already a bishop, so the move to Osorno was a transfer.)

In addition, the situation also raises questions about the oft-proclaimed commitment of Pope Francis and his Vatican team to accountability, not just for personnel who commit abuse, but also for bishops and other supervisors who cover it up or defend the guilty.

Despite the fact that Barros’ installation Mass was interrupted by large protests from furious Chileans, nothing about his appointment was done by Pope Francis. No recall, not even a review. And now, in a video that has just come to light — filmed in May, 2015 — we see that Francis actually has contempt for those who disagreed with his decision:

“The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” Pope Francis told a group of tourists on St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, because it “has let its head be filled with what politicians say, judging a bishop without any proof.”

“Don’t be led by the nose by the leftists who orchestrated all of this,” the pope said.

The video, filmed by an Argentine tourist in May, was obtained by a Chilean television station and broadcast Friday, quickly instilling doubts here about the pope’s commitment to protecting victims of sexual abuse.


Hundreds of demonstrators interruptedBishop Barros’s installation ceremony in March, blocking his passage and shouting, “Barros, get out of the city!” The protests have not stopped since, but this time the anger has turned to the pope.

“The pope’s comments aggravated our discontent,” said Juan Carlos Claret, a spokesman for Osorno’s Lay Organization, which has been holding protests and candlelight vigils against Bishop Barros for months.

“It is the Church of Osorno that is demonstrating; we are not taking orders from political parties,” Mr. Claret said. “We are now seeing the real face of Pope Francis, and we demand an explanation.”

In the video, Pope Francis asserted that the accusations against Bishop Barros were unfounded and that a Chilean court had dismissed such claims. However, a judicial investigation into the presumed negligence and cover-up of church officials regarding Father Karadima’s abuses is still in progress.

In cases like Danneels and Barros, a time-tested adage comes to mind: “Personnel is policy.” It also applies to the ever-growing list of other heterodox clerics whom Francis has raised to positions of power.

Supporters will note that Pope Francis will often say perfectly orthodox things, and use this as evidence that he is fully Catholic, but simply misunderstood. But as his public record increasingly (and alarmingly) demonstrates, Francis is a man who appears to says what he believes his audience wants to hear, even if it means contradicting something he previously said. It is imperative that we look beyond his words, and focus instead on his actions, and on the semiotics of his papacy.

Repeated denials about his affinity for Marxist thinkers become far less convincing in the face of pleased acceptance of a communist “crucifix.” Repeated vocal support for traditional marriage rings hollow when we see him meeting uncritically and happily before the cameras with gay and transgendered couples, distancing himself from Kim Davis, and stacking the Synod with pro-homosexual prelates. Repeated condemnations of clerical abusers or their protecting bishops mean little when the only ones held accountable are those who espouse a more traditional ecclesiology than the one favored in Rome — while friends and supporters of the Pope so accused are empowered and even honored.

Imagine if Pope Benedict had so transparently contradicted himself, placed prelates accused of facilitating or perpetrating sexual abuse in positions of power and influence, then went on to condemn his critics for being “dumb.” The media furor would have far eclipsed what happened after his remarks at Regensburg.

It’s time for some accountability. Where is the Catholic media on these questions? Where are the faithful? These are situations where justice demands answers, not obfuscation.

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