Sexual Abuse and the End of Papal Deference


National Catholic Register, 19 January 2019

COMMENTARY: The Chilean bishops’ visit to Rome demonstrated the newfound willingness of bishops to push back publicly against objectionable actions

As depicted in the television series The Crown, a member of the House of Lords publicly criticizes the Queen’s old-fashioned and “priggish” ways as out of keeping with a “new” Britain. In a bit of creative license, the Queen meets secretly with Lord Altrincham to seek his counsel. What is it that has changed? What is part of the old Britain that no longer holds?

“The age of deference, Ma’am,” Lord Altrincham replies, speaking in 1957.

That may well describe what is going on now in regard to the Supreme Pontiff and bishops, driven by the handling of sexual-abuse scandals by Pope Francis. The extraordinary visit of the leadership of the Chilean episcopate to Rome this week indicated that.

The visit marked the anniversary of the disastrous visit of Pope Francis to Chile in January 2018, the aftermath of which led to the Holy Father sending an investigator to Chile. In April he wrote a letter to the Chilean bishops, castigating them for their negligence and malfeasance and blaming them for “misinforming” Rome, holding them responsible for the Holy Father’s serious mistakes regarding Chile. In May the entire Chilean episcopate was summoned to Rome to be chastised in person. That meeting ended with all the bishops submitting their resignations (seven of which have been accepted).

The Chileans took it all meekly, even though it was already publicly known that their leadership had quite well-informed Pope Francis on the critical matter of Bishop Juan Barros and begged him not to transfer him to a new diocese — the spark that led to the conflagration of the Chilean Church. Deference to the Holy Father won the day.

Not so this week. The Vatican News report of the meeting noted that the papal visit last year was “largely overshadowed by abuse scandals and accusations of mishandling of cases by some of the country’s bishops.”

Actually, it was the Pope’s decisions that overshadowed the visit, but a certain latitude with the truth is expected from official public-relations bureaus. What followed was not expected.

Vatican News went on to quote the secretary-general of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Luis Fernando Ramos Pérez, characterizing their conversation with Pope Francis as “frank and fruitful.”

“Frank” discussions is the near-universal code that press officials use to characterize highly contentious diplomatic meetings. That the Vatican itself would use the term to characterize a papal meeting with bishops is striking.

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