How Pope Francis took 2013 by storm

There is Pope Francis with angelic wings, smiling beatifically on the cover of the New Yorker magazine wherein James Carroll’s profile sings hope for a church reformed. And there is Francis featured as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. They are just two of the many prominent public expressions of the new pope’s virtues that stand in high relief from the darkness that has shadowed the church for two decades now.

In the nine months since his election in Rome, the pope from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has become a moral statesman on the global stage, preaching an ethos of mercy, justice and peace.

Cardinal Bergogolio was elected last March by cardinals aghast at a Roman Curia so balkanized that a butler leaked papal correspondence to the media; money-laundering at the Vatican Bank; and the clergy abuse scandals which sociologist Father Andrew M. Greeley, in 1992, called “perhaps the most serous crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation.”

How has Francis responded to the crisis? Do his early moves suggest structural changes to match his eloquence on mercy and justice?

With breathtaking rhetoric, like his powerful statement last month against rising income inequality around the world, and powerful symbolism, like washing the feet of Muslim girls in prison, Francis has shifted media focus from the church’s unresolved crisis to a language of hope that many people crave.

But a core question lingers over all of this good publicity: At what point will he confront the weight of necessary change within a church still in need of structural reform if it is going to resolve the priest sex abuse crisis that has consumed it?

The pope’s standing as an apostle of peace evolved over the last century. Before the Great War, the pope was a revered religious monarch with little impact on international politics. World War I drove Benedict XV to make powerful pleas, trying to halt the carnage; he proposed peace planks that President Wilson advocated at the Versailles treaty talks. Pius XII, whose silence on WWII Nazi atrocities raised a controversy well after his death, was praised by Golda Meir and Albert Einstein in life. John XXIII championed human rights in his encyclical, “Peace on Earth,” and interfaith understanding at the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Paul VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

John Paul II took human rights to a new level as a catalyst in the fall of the Soviet communist empire. But from John Paul’s painful twilight years through Benedict’s beleaguered papacy, the lengthening crisis of child-abusing priests damaged the papal role as moral statesman. How could any pope preach of human rights and dignity while refusing to confront a criminal sexual underground in clerical culture? When popes fail, as Benedict did in his passivity to the 2010 explosion of abuse cases in Europe, the papacy seems crippled.

But Pope Francis is on a remarkable ride as he endeavors to heal the church. When he spoke the phrase “who am I to judge?” in response to a journalist’s question about a gay priest, it suggested a tone of tolerance to bishops, at least in America, who held an unyielding stance in the culture wars. For that, the longstanding gay magazine The Advocate chose the pope as its person of the year.

In calling down “the globalization of indifference,” giving voice to the poor and refugees, and eschewing papal finery, Francis has touched a spiritual hunger in Western societies where religious worship has plummeted in recent decades as consumer culture boomed.

Suddenly, a global figure insists on a moral imperative to help others, challenging a passivity that marks the age. We sit like couch potatoes watching a virtual apocalypse, numbed by the nightly show of rot — Wall Street swindlers, school shootings, a cowardly Congress, trashy celebrities, even Lance Armstrong who, we now know, replenished himself with fresh blood like a vampire to strengthen his cycling performance.

Great athletes enact humanity’s yearning for the mythic quest to victory. Great pastors explain the mystery of God’s love, articulating spiritual values to transcend the specter of inexplicable suffering, particularly that of children. They refute the idea of fate as random, cold and godless.

Francis’s rousing defense of the poor hit a media arena that seems to have sunken into value neutrality. Celebrity culture has wrecked TV news, demagogues abound.

Pure Marxism” is what Rush Limbaugh called “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis’s 50,000-word Apostolic Exhortation. Released Nov. 26, the document made international news as Francis protested “laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.”

His words capture a reality not just of the poor, but millions of young, educated people around the world caught in Depression-level unemployment, forced to leave country, home and kin to find work.

“Masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape,” Francis wrote, “not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”

But the church has her own leftovers, like the 575 claimants sexually violated as children by priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese, which chose grinding bankruptcy litigation to slash its compensation to victims. A central issue there is $57 million then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan took from general funds and buried in the budget for cemeteries. A Catholic federal judge with relatives buried in those Milwaukee cemeteries ruled the $57 million “untouchable” and cannot be used to pay victims because the US Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. His ruling is on appeal.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” Pope Francis stated in “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Dolan left Milwaukee to become archbishop of New York, and a cardinal under Benedict. In the run-up to the March conclave, the Italian press gushed over Dolan’s glad-handing and kissing babies, suggesting that he’d be a grand pope. Imagine what the international media would have made of that $57 million stuffed in cemetery coffers, had Dolan become pope, or the $20,000 bonus package he gave Milwaukee pedophiles to leave the priesthood. Dolan wisely tamped down the speculation.

In July, Francis issued a motu proprio (“in his hand”) decree that stiffened laws for the Vatican City State with regard to money-laundering. This move was responding to a process, begun under Benedict and broadened by Francis, restructuring the Vatican Bank under the advice of Moneyval, a European financial regulator; Ernst and Young auditors; and a Wall Street damage control company, Promontory.

Anticipating a possible prosecution from the ultimate findings, Francis’s decree put the Vatican into an alignment with civil law. The decree went further, covering child pornography and crimes involving children, mandating prison terms of up to 12 years.

The pope stands as final arbiter of canon law, literally a one-man supreme court with sweeping powers to reverse, halt or terminate a given proceeding. Popes rarely intervene in adjudicated matters in the Vatican canonical courts, which deal heavily in administrative issues of the church.

The entrenched pattern of bishops who recycled child abusers, according to Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and dean emeritus of the Duquesne University law school, “shows how poorly they used the laws they had.”

“Canon law provides for ecclesiastical trials in cases of severe wrongdoing,” Cafardi said.

Countless bishops sent perpetrators to psychiatric hospitals, and then back in ministry.

Francis’s motu proprio covers cardinals, bishops, religious and lay officials at the Vatican, as well as papal diplomats at the Vatican’s 120 embassies or postings — roughly 4000 people, according to a source knowledgable of church legal process. As the law was taking shape, news reports from the Dominican Republic accused the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, of abusing boys.

A native of Poland with a Vatican diplomatic passport, Wesolowski left the country. Rather than invoke diplomatic immunity, the Holy See cooperated with Dominican authorities, who praised the Vatican for doing so. In November, prosecutors in Santo Domingo stated that the nuncio abused five boys younger than 15. No indictment has been issued.

Wesolowski is one of about twenty Catholic bishops, who to use church parlance, is “credibly accused” of abusing youth. Two Canadian bishops have spent time in prison; the others, mostly American, “stepped down” from their positions, in many cases while the victims received legal settlements. The bishops remained, in title, bishops. In contrast, roughly 1,000 priests have been defrocked by the Vatican in the last decade.

There are still swirling questions around Bergoglio’s governance in Argentina.

In 2001, journalist Olga Wornat published a book on the Argentine church, Nuestra Santa Madre, a devastating account of complicity between Argentine bishops and the military junta in the Dirty War (1976-83). It also revealed a dark history behind the tenure of Archbishop Edgar Storni of Santa Fe, Argentina and the 1994 decision by the Vatican to clear him of accusations that he had sexually abused seminarians. Several of Storni’s victims were interviewed for the book and spoke on television. Protesting his innocence, Storni resigned, but in 2003 was found guilty of abusing a seminarian who had been underage years earlier. Storni appealed. In 2009 the court upheld his conviction; however he was restricted to house arrest in lieu of an 8-year sentence. He died in 2012 at age 75.

In the book, Wornat portrays Bergoglio, the Jesuit who became a bishop after the war years, rather favorably. In a Huffington Post interview with Mandy Fridmann shortly after he became pope, Wornat said that Storni in 2001 “sought refuge in the Vatican and Ratzinger, who was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while John Paul was still alive, asked Storni to return to Argentina and resign, and to turn himself in.”

After the book was published, as she told Fridmann “I talked to Bergoglio about the situation and I asked him if they were going to defend him.

“He answered, ‘The justice will take care of him.’ After that, I found out that the lawyers that were defending Storni in the case of the seminarians were lawyers that were hired by the Argentinian episcopate, of which Bergoglio was a member.”

Bergoglio, though not yet a cardinal, still wielded significant authority in the Argentine hierarchy at the time.

“I told him that what they were doing was terrible, because the episcopate was paying for the lawyers of a man who had abused 14-year-old teenagers,” Wornat continued. “There was even an investigation led by the Argentinian Church. He didn’t respond. He just told me that’s how things were, and that the Church’s laws were very strict.”

The Vatican response on Wesolowski — offering to send the papal ambassador back to face justice in Santo Domingo — suggests a turning point in Francis’s legal approach to the crisis. But how far has he turned?

One recent case that stands as a precedent is that of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri. He was convicted of a felony misdemeanor for failing to report a priest, who has since gone to jail. Finn has been adjudicated guilty, yet stays bishop. Wesolowski, at least in the country he fled, has not yet been charged.

Leaving Finn in his position tracks Benedict’s policy of a church that will apologize for its failures, but stand by bishops whose negligence or blunders cause scandal and great financial loss.

Will that be Francis’s stance? If not, how much will he tolerate?

The contrast between Finn and Wesolowski suggests, at least for now, an arbitrary approach. In 2008, as part of a $10 million settlement to 47 victims of other clerics, Bishop Finn agreed to abide by 19 proactive measures, including reporting future clerical misconduct to authorities. He failed to do so with Father Shawn Radigan, whom he sent to live with unknowing nuns after child pornography was found on the priest’s computer.

Radigan took a plea bargain 50-year term for photographing several young girls. Finn’s indictment in the coverup resulted in a two year sentence of probation that requires him to meet regularly with the local prosecutor. The diocese has agreed to $4 million in settlements for three cases involving Radigan’s victims, with several more pending, the Kanas City Star has reported.

In October, Francis removed Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany from his diocese for spending $44 million on the residential complex where he lived. Tebartz-van Elst created a huge scandal in Germany. He remains a bishop, albeit in shadows.

Tebartz-van Elst cut an image of waste and luxury, which clearly rubbed raw the values of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who took public transport and who worked tirelessly in the slums. As Francis said at his first public audience, “I want a church that is poor and for the poor.”

How does the German bishop’s squandering of money and moral authority compare with Finn of Kansas City who cost his diocese millions after failure to report a priest to legal authorities? The German bishop became a national scandal; Finn, though he made fleeting national news, was a regional scandal.

Finn, it would seem, is a prime beneficiary of apostolic succession, a theological position which holds that all bishops are spiritual descendants of Jesus’s apostles. Apostolic succession provides de facto immunity from church prosecution. The US bishops’ conference made no public protest of Finn. The Vatican knows; but only the pope can remove a bishop. For whatever reason, Finn has not been high on Francis’s agenda.

Because cardinals elect one of their own to become pope, no pope in modern time has stripped a cardinal of his rank, not even the fallen princes of the church, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles.

Law and Mahony both used psychiatric hospitals as safe houses instead of reporting predator priests to law enforcement, and in the process ended up costing their archdioceses $170 million and $770 million in victim settlements, respectively. Law resigned as archbishop in 2002, moved to Rome in 2004, helped the Curia select new bishops and earns $10,000 a month as pastor of a great basilica.

Mahony spent tens of millions in legal fees to prevent the clergy personnel files from being released, as the Los Angeles District Attorney sent subpoenas in 2002. When the files finally came out over the last year, Mahony was a figure of ridicule even in Rome; but the D.A. had dropped its investigation (the statute of limitations had run out) and Mahony voted in the conclave. Law, over 80, was too old.

The Vatican’s porous, malleable and archaic legal system — so contrary to rules of evidence and procedure in Western jurisprudence — has prolonged the continuing crisis. The Vatican and Western legal systems grind against each other like tectonic plates beneath the earth, while church money bursts up from the cracks to abuse victims and their lawyers. In America alone the crisis has cost the church in excess of $2 billion through litigation and treatment expenses for the priests.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who has closed dozens of parishes in Boston in keeping up with the costs of the crisis, is a key figure in the eight-member group of cardinals who function as a special advisory cabinet to Francis. O’Malley recently announced in Rome that a Vatican commission would research the crisis.

Collaborating with Dominican Republic authorities is an important step on Francis’s part. But the overriding issue is a standard of justice applicable to bishops like Finn, and cardinals like Law, Mahony and Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, the unflinching defender of the late Father Marcial Maciel, the notorious pedophile and founder of the scandal-battered Legion of Christ religious order.

“I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures,” Francis wrote in the November exhortation, “Love and the Gospel.”

He continued: “My hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges.”

The challenge for Pope Francis is how to change structures of the church that provide a wall of security for bishops and cardinals who tolerated the rape of innocents and continue to use these church structures to protect themselves.

GlobalPost religion writer Jason Berry is author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.