News

Cardinal’s sex abuse charges raise questions about pope’s record

Pope Francis arrives to lead a Mass at the church of the Parish of San Pier Damiani at Casal Bernocchi on the southern outskirts of Rome on May 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Remo Casilli

VATICAN CITY (RNS) As the Vatican reeled from news that one of its top officials was taking a leave to fight historical sex abuse charges in Australia, the spotlight quickly turned to Pope Francis, with his critics slamming him for failing to do enough to tackle the vexing issue.

Cardinal George Pell, the most senior figure in church history to face child sex abuse charges, is the Vatican’s financial czar and a trusted adviser to the pope.

Pell, 76, is facing “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences,” said police in the Australian state of Victoria.

“I am looking forward to my day in court,” Pell told a packed media conference Thursday (June 29). “I am innocent of these charges. They are false.”


READ: Cardinal George Pell takes a leave of absence after sex assault charges


His controversial case has unleashed a wave of criticism from survivor groups and commentators who say the pope has not done enough to root out predators and protect children.

“There is a deep disconnect between the pope’s words and his actions,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the advocacy group Bishop Accountability.

Barrett Doyle was critical of the pope for keeping Pell in his post until now, despite knowledge of the allegations against him.

“The pope is not a reformer when it comes to the crisis,” she said. “He apologizes often and uses buzz phrases like ‘zero tolerance.’ But underneath he remains the minimizer and the defender of accused priests.”

Robert Mickens, an American editor for the French Catholic magazine La Croix, said it was significant that Pell had stepped aside but he criticized the pope’s record on clerical abuse.

“Whether Pell specifically asked for a leave from his Vatican duties to return for the trial, or whether the pope ordered him to do so, the effect is the same. And it is a development from the past,” Mickens said, when the church would have defended Vatican churchmen.

But Mickens said Francis has never made the church’s sexual abuse crisis a priority of his administration.

“It took him more than a year after his election as bishop of Rome before he even mentioned it,” said Mickens, a longtime Vatican commentator. “I think a major reason for that is his experience as a bishop in Latin America, where the issue has not been dealt with openly or effectively.”

After his election, Francis established a Vatican panel for the protection of minors to change church practices and increase awareness about abuse and education in the church.

But survivor Peter Saunders was forced to take a leave of absence from the panel after scathing criticism of Pell. Irish survivor Marie Collins resigned in disgust in March over what she called “shameful” obstruction within the Vatican.

The charges against one of his closest advisors and the architect of his economic and administrative reforms of the Holy See is not only embarrassing for the pope but brings the church abuse scandal to his door.

Paddy Agnew, an Irish commentator who has followed the Vatican for 30 years, said Francis’ record on rooting out predators is mixed.

Agnew said Francis acted quickly to remove Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, who was accused of sex crimes against minors in the Dominican Republic. Wesolowski died in 2015 before he was tried for child pornography.

“On the other hand, sex abuse survivors and lobbyists argue that Francis has been shamefully irresponsible in defending Chilean Bishop Juan Barros,” said Agnew.

Barros has been accused of covering up clerical abuse in Chile in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is no doubt there has been some change under Francis. He has spoken out many times against clerical sexual abuse and late last year he urged bishops around the world to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy.

“I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst,” he said in a letter to them.

This month, the pope defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex crimes by an Italian court a year ago.

But Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, had initially defrocked Inzoli in 2012 after he was first accused of abusing minors. Francis reversed that decision in 2014, ordering the priest to stay away from children before finally coming to the conclusion that the priest could no longer continue in his duties.


RELATED: Pope Francis defrocks Italian priest convicted of child sex abuse


The U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has urged the pope to send Pell home as soon as possible and hoped the Australian investigation would inspire other countries to do more.

“Sexual abuse thrives when it is allowed to flourish in secrecy,” said SNAP spokeswoman Joelle Casteix in a statement.

In the past, the Vatican, as a sovereign state in the heart of Rome, offered officials immunity from prosecution.

In the early 1980s, it refused an Italian request to hand over Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, an American who was wanted for questioning about the fraudulent bankruptcy of a private Italian bank.

And Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston escaped potential prosecution when he moved to Rome after the sex abuse scandal erupted in his diocese in 2002.

Pell, it appears, was not offered that option.

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.

30 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Francis has been all talk and no action. But as all we Catholics know, that is the catholic way. This festering wound will continue to eat away at the RCC for decades to come unless they come clean, totally clean nothing hidden, left out, denied. With each new revelation about what they do and do not do, the RCC dies a little. If they truly lived as Christ, if they truly follow God, if the believe they are the priests of the living God, then they will do as God does, as Christ does, and SPEAK THE FULL TRUTH! Only then will the Holy Spirit, the Power of God, the presence of Jesus manifest and restore His Church. This is a cancer, where if one single cancerous cell remains it will grow and kill off what is left. They owe it to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the faith, the faithful. Practice what you have dedicated your life to, what you preach. God will protect the Church when the Jackals try to attack, but only when EVERYTHING is revealed. Allow God to do what is needed. Until then the RCC is not in communion with the Almighty.

  • Pope Francis secretly removed Wesolowski in July 2013. He didn’t remove him to the Vatican until Sept. 2014, leaving the archbishop a free man for 14 months.
    The pope called those opposing his appointment of Barros “stupid” and “lefties.”
    Saunders was removed from the commission because he criticized Pope Francis. In any case, the sex abuse commission hasn’t accomplished anything other than some training of bishops who know that, like the pope, they can protect pedophiles with impunity.

  • Thanks for correction. Yes, the pope was informed in July, Wesolowski removed in Aug and restricted to the Vatican in Sept. 2015.

  • There is ample evidence that bishops covered up the sex abuse of children in many European countries, the U.S., Canada, Australia, South America. All you have to do is read transcripts of legal actions taken or forced on bishops that opened their own records. Don’t know about Africa. The fact that none have received civil punishment for failing to protect children is a matter of the flaw in civil laws.

    But civil law is not the measure of morality. What would Jesus have done to a priest who sexually abused a child? What would He have said to an Apostle who “forgave” the priest and then left that priest in a place to continue to abuse more children, and who did nothing to help the one abused or that person’s family?

    What is obvious from all that we have now learned is that our civil laws regarding the reporting of sexual abuse of children or vulnerable adults – those laws badly need updating and need to have a very long statute of limitations.

    Really sad that the Catholic Church defenders are reduced to relying on civil law to define moral responsibility.

  • It is not just one religion. All religions are same in that when by self righteousness the religious teach to overcome the flesh, they found a tall cliff. Scandals are rampant in all the Eastern religions as well as the “Abraham Religions”. The longer their service, traditions and history in what men glory in, the larger the sanitary napkin they have.

    By the time the woman with blood issue of twelve years (12 for society or institution – church) heard about Jesus, she already lost her wealth and health. She is unclean (the gentile) in the eye of her society and her own eyes. As a last resort, she came to Jesus from the back among the crowd to touch Him. She could be stoned and shamed if she was found out. She was healed. Jesus stopped for her even though the girl of twelve years ( 12 for society of 12 brothers) was dying. The church was saved. She was the only one called Daughter. She was healed and given comfort and peace. (Eventually Jesus go to the house of the synagogue ruler and raises her from death.)

    It is not church line or blood line, it is the person of Jesus Christ from whom all blessings flow.

  • well when you have a (pope) that doesn’t adhere to true new testament scripture concerning homosexuality and other practices..this is the end result- still more to come out of the pedophile ring of the vatican- you just watch!

  • That is a duplicitous response that ignores what is actually in the records institutions, especially the Catholic Church, have been forced to make public.

    I believe in the rule of law but I think we need laws that have longer statutes of limitations so that those who cover up child sexual abuse and are not discovered to have done so for 10, 15, 20 years, are held liable for a failure to report what they learned to the police.

    If you still dispute that the Catholic church massively hid child sex abuse in this country, Ireland, Australia, Canada – you haven’t been reading transcripts of trials or reviewed evidence made public or even listened to the admissions of bishops in all those countries. I suggest you pay attention to the transcripts of the Australian Royal Commission.

    I don’t want loose laws. I want laws that recognize what we have discovered about institutions (not just religious institutions and not just the Catholic church) that follow the same pattern of protecting those powerful or highly identified with the institution at the expense of protecting children, youth, and vulnerable adults. Many have done it – religious institutions, children’s clubs, sports clubs, schools and universities.

    We have learned a great deal and now we need laws to assure institutions are held accountable. I am well aware that laws cannot be made retroactive. So be it. But start now to require reporting so that children/youth are better protected.

  • The biggest question is why Francis appointed Pell to head the Vatican Bank in the first place. The child abuse charges were already long standing and well known. Long after the original child abuse charges, when Pell was moved safe-keeping in the Vatican (after the infamous Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston), when informed of the super-expensive refrigerator Pell had installed in his Rome apartment, Francis is reported to have asked if it were made of gold!

    There was the fact that Pell, already an old man, should have retired! Smell the daisies his filth fertilized! One must ask if protection was the reason Francis yanked him over to the walled state of Vatican City. Of course, that’s the case with most of the men running the curia offices. Old men run the Catholic Church! It’s a closed society!

    There is only one cure for these unresolved crimes that continue to be swept under Vatican oriental rugs in the non-stop effort to hide them. Revolution! In church parlance, Reformation! Reformation led by the “People of God”! Those costly orientals were paid for by the people in the pews! Those “lay” people in the pews, must be given a full say in church management! They are the constituents! They are the church! They pay the bills! They now share fully in the guilt of those crimes! Those abused kids were their kids!

    PS: The Vatican should reject Donald Trump’s appointment of the third wife of the person who is as non-church as Trump himself, as ambassador! Trump’s wife has absolutely no diplomatic experience! Marching in the choir of the National Basilica, is not diplomatic experience! Gingrich’s third wife–not counting his many paramours–has had no government experience whatsoever!

    Sexually servicing an ex-politician, eventually marrying him, and arranging for his “conversion” to enable all of that display and empowerment, is politics–of a sort–but it is not government experience! Gingrich could no longer be elected as the proverbial dog catcher!

  • “The pope is not a reformer when it comes to the crisis,” she said. “He apologizes often and uses buzz phrases like ‘zero tolerance.’ But underneath he remains the minimizer and the defender of accused priests.”

    This pope has been too busy chasing headlines and spotlights in his effort to be pope for the whole universe. That has caused him to seriously neglected this issue of getting rid of priests and bishops who are sexual predators. He can certainly be faulted for this neglect, but the roots of the problem are structural, and they go all the way back to the time when the Catholic Church decided that celibacy was mandatory for all men wanting to be priests. Many of them were hurried into that decision by parents and priests to help them avoid the turmoil of puberty, so many of these young men first began to experience their own sexually after they were ordained! This led to their sexual experimentation with fornication and adultry, and the molestation of altar boys and girls.

    The Catholic Church should at least move into the 18th century and allow all male candidates for the priesthood the choice to marry or not. Maybe with some luck, they might even move into the mid-20th century and allow women to be priests!

  • That’s exactly what Robert Finn of Kansas City-Saint Joseph was convicted of: failing to report suspected child abuse.

  • You are in dire need of learning the mythology of old writings like both testaments and the mythology of religion in general. Even more important, you are in very dire need of learning science and sociology as it relates to sexual orientation–especially sexual orientation which is different than your own. You are showing the bigotry that always results from ignorance.

  • You are so right. Churches preach sin, but they ignore the awful sins of their own. And the bishops are in charge of that clerical sin! The Catholic Church is most “sinfully” guilty of that because it places so much emphasis on sex with its shameful, unnatural attitudes about sex and celibacy.

    Now they pretend that celibacy is as old as the church. Nonsense! It was only made a church rule in the twelfth century, and that was to protect church property from being inherited by the wives and descendants of sexually active, marred clergy.

    The “People of God” ought to preach, even scream, that responsible marriage, sex, and the generation of children is normal and can and should be responsible. Then it too will be properly considered “holy”. As for church property, modern law shows how that can be protected without the unnatural nonsense of celibacy.

    While they’re at it, “The People of God” should also learn and admit that sexual orientation exists in different varieties than the man-woman type presumed in the mythology of scripture that is still maintained by most churches.

  • Yes, and he’s the only U.S. bishop who has yet been charged, indicted, and found guilty of that crime–“sin”!

  • You have honest insight, and you write honestly. Civil law is as guilty as the bishops who protect those crimes of sex. Civil law–the parents of the abused, and the abused themselves–ought to protect against abuse by prosecution!

  • That’s one more than the zero you claimed.
    How was the prosecutor “radically pro-abortion”?
    The age of consent in MO is 17. It is also legal in MO for two people to have sex if they are both at least 14 and one is as old as 20. So unless the clinic suspected that the father was 21 or over, or the girl was younger than 14, AND the clinic is a mandatory reporter (which they probably are), they would have nothing to report.
    First, Finn was convicted after a judge heard the facts and made a ruling. Even if it was a no-contest plea, such a plea is usually not as of right. The prosecutor you insinuate is so anti-Catholic would have had to offer him that privilege. She could have made him admit his guilt. In any event, a no-contest plea is still a criminal conviction. The fact that he may never have admitted his guilt is irrelevant to his status as a convicted criminal.

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOZ0irgLwxU&feature=youtu.be

    Are you obviously living in a denial self-induced program to deny my right to believe my theology (isn’t that bigotry)? Yes, it is!, you’re also living in a post-modernist world of “make your own truth” regardless of Science you believe in as you hide behind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOZ0irgLwxU&feature=youtu.be when you come across as all-knowing. I realize I’m talking to another typical person who doesn’t “get it” so onward and upward with your post-modernist double talk! good luck with handling the rest of your life and with your kids. My Science books and my classes back then- described the sexing of animals and their behavior always proved “correct”..you’re making me wonder if you’re into science or disregarding it for postmodernism! Make up your mind!

  • Dire need! are you serious! seriously that’s a trigger word for yourself to re-evaluate your own thinking. think direly!

  • Actually, Sabe, it is a far older problem than the 12th century edicts about celibacy. You might want to google St. Peter Damien, who was concerned about the problem in, I think, 1050. I also read some documentation about rhcprpb,me being a known one back as far as the fifth century, but I can’t find that in my files.

  • Finn failed to report the suspected abuse because he was trying to avoid exposure of the abuse. Shielding the priest who engaged in the wrongdoing falls under that.
    If there is no abuse to suspect, there is nothing to report. Does an ER doctor have to report as suspected abuse every claimed accidental injury to a child, just because of the potential the injury was due to abuse?
    I have found several media sites stating that the judge found Finn guilty. The only mentions of a no-contest plea I’ve found are from you and other Catholic traditionalists, attempting to do what is only digging a bigger hole: protect the Church, protect the priests and bishops, f&ck the victims. And even if it was a no-contest plea, that would change nothing about the fact that he is a convicted criminal, proving you wrong about your assertion that there have been zero convictions.

  • Where are you getting that definition of “Stipulation of Testimony”? It doesn’t appear in the link you provided. Stipulated testimony means that the parties are agreeing that witnesses would have testified to certain facts, in lieu of calling those witnesses. It is not necessarily an admission of those facts.
    A finding of guilt after a defendant does not contest the charge is not the same as a no-contest plea. The former is consistent with a hearing or trial, the latter involves NO admissions — just a plea and conviction. The whole point of nolo contendere is that you don’t have to admit anything.
    In any event, trial or no-contest plea, it appears that Finn did not dispute much of the factual evidence against him. Thanks for providing the details. It’s certainly more damning than just the fact that he was convicted of a misdemeanor.
    It also raises the question of why he didn’t fight the charge at trial, if it was so unjust, politically motivated, brought by an anti-Catholic prosecutor, etc. And why was he so upset that his subordinate reported it to the police? If he was merely unaware that he had a legal obligation to report, he shouldn’t have been so mad at the reporting priest. The more likely scenario is he didn’t want it reported at all.

  • I said that the link didn’t contain your definition of “Stipulation of Testimony,” not that it didn’t contain those words. That’s the part you took out in favor of an ellipsis in a failed effort to make me look foolish. In any event, I have been practicing criminal law for 20 years. How long have you been doing it? Your definition of a no-contest plea is inaccurate, and more importantly, entirely irrelevant in light of the stipulation, which paints Finn out to be exactly what the critics have claimed him to be: someone more concerned with the “poor father” and the diocese than the girls the priest was taking upskirt shots of.

  • Sorry, I’m not going to sink to your level of insults. Neither the Wikipedia nor the Cornell Law article support what you’re saying. There is not, nor has there ever been, a general requirement in US law for stipulated facts for a court to accept a plea. Furthermore, a nolo plea is meant to avoid admissions, not make them as you’re claiming.
    You seem to be confusing the stipulation here with a settlement in a civil case. Para. 3 of the stipulation says exactly the opposite of what you claim. It is not a requirement or agreement that in the future church leaders will do a single thing. It is an acknowledgement that there would have been testimony at Finn’s criminal trial that diocesan policy already, at the time of the events in question, required the reporting of suspected child abuse.

  • You can bait me all you want, it won’t change the facts or the law. Nor will it change your continuing ignorance of the law. Now you seem to be confusing the difference between a standard guilty plea, which is a legal admission of guilt and often requires statements on the record by the defendant about what he did, with a no-contest plea, which, as the Wikipedia page you yourself cited says, is “where the defendant neither admits nor disputes the charge.”
    I don’t dislike Finn, I dislike what he did. I wouldn’t have mentioned him at all had you not lied at the outset and said there had been zero convictions. And I dislike the machinations people like you seem to need to twist yourselves into in order to defend the indefensible. Feel free to block me if reality is a problem for you. Until then, take your passive aggressive “nice life” references and shove them.

  • You are so right, sorry to say, more corruption, coming from the Vatican, what are they thinking? Can’t believe what they are accused of doing? Worst than our Congress!

  • Yes, they have being getting away with it for hundreds of years. Time to make church accountable for all their crimes! Jail them

ADVERTISEMENTs