(Reuters/Aristide Economopoulos)

How Pope Francis is changing the Church — and why truly saving it will be so hard

The Pope's whirlwind tour of America provides a perfect time to assess his papacy to date

Robert Hennelly
September 28, 2015 10:59PM (UTC)

Does Pope Francis’s effort at reinvigorating the Catholic Church have any chance of succeeding in an organization that has become reflexively defensive as it lurches from scandal to scandal? How does he see to it his plans get carried out? When you're just too big to jail, no matter what the offense, there is always the temptation to let saying you're sorry be good enough.

There's no international tribunal outside the Church that can force the necessary changes that can only come from within. So, Pope Francis is left with self-regulation, which is all about taming the beast within.


The great conundrum for the Catholic Church is that its enormous size, which is the source of much of its power to do good, has also been the occasion for so much sin. “The Catholic Church was the original multinational corporation,” says James Henry, international lawyer and tax haven expert with Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Investment. “They had local managers, international policies, committees for finance and growth.”

Ironically, in order to successfully get a credible reset, the Church has to conduct an honest public inventory of its sins.

For decades the Vatican Bank, formally known as the Institute for the Works of Religion, was mired in one scandal after another. In the early 1980s, it had to pay $224 million to satisfy claims related to its role in the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, the second largest bank in Italy. In 2010, Italian prosecutors seized $28 million from a Vatican-linked bank account because law enforcement said it was linked to money laundering. In 2012, for the first time, the Vatican Bank made the State Department’s annual money laundering watch list in its International Narcotic Control Strategy report. In 2013, police arrested a ranking Vatican cleric for allegedly trying to smuggle and launder $30 million.


Under Pope Francis’s watch, reforms that had been started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, were accelerated, by way of a purge of the people responsible for oversight of the Vatican’s bank. At the same time, officials initiated a scrubbing of the bank’s account holders to ensure that the roster only included institutions and individuals officially linked to the Church. As a consequence, deposits dropped from $3.6 billion in 2013 to $2.2 billion in 2014. At the same time, thanks to an increase in trading profits and cutting in consultants fees, the bank’s profits spiked from $3.9 million in 2013 to $75.5 million in 2014.

Yet for Pope Francis, it is the Church’s massive sex abuse scandal that continues to play out around the world that is his thorniest crisis. At stake is the trust of parents who entrust the Church with their minor children. Also at risk are the Church’s wealth and physical assets, primarily it’s real estate. Full disclosure of what the Church hierarchy knew, and when they knew it, could provide ammunition for litigants looking for millions in compensation through the civil court system, and expose Church leadership to potential criminal prosecution.

The toll is already mounting. Consider that the cost of dealing with the sex abuse scandal has helped bankrupt 12 dioceses and two religious order.


Historically, there’s been no better "hide the ball" team than the Catholic Church itself, which for years tried to run out the clock with the epidemic of sexual abuse involving priests raping and molesting boys. On multiple occasions, most famously documented by the Boston Globe, bishops would transfer the alleged offender before the suspected predator could be held accountable. The reality is that the things that were done by church hierarchy themselves to conceal the truth should have been chargeable under RICO statutes.

This past weekend, Pope Francis once again attempted to publicly atone for the Church’a handling of the sex abuse scandal. “God weeps, for the sexual abuse of children cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and that all responsible will be held accountable,” Francis said at the close of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.


It was in Philadelphia that a grand jury accused the local arch-diocese of keeping three dozen priests on assignment who were under investigation for sexually abusing minors. Ultimately a monsignor who oversaw those assignments was convicted for child endangerment, becoming the first U.S. cleric convicted for their role in the cover-up.

Earlier this year, after Pope Francis’s call for “zero tolerance,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a first-of-its-kind comprehensive audit of its efforts to address the crisis. From July of 2013 through June of 2014, the U.S. Catholic Church spent close to $120 million to settle cases with victims and another $31.6 million on training, compliance and background checks of two million volunteers and employees, 51,134 clerics and 6,568 candidates for ordination.

According to the USCCB report, 4.4 million children received instruction on how recognize sexual abuse and protect themselves. The bishops reported that 80 percent of the new allegations that surfaced over the reporting period were legacy claims that were 25 years or older. Of the 294 “credible allegations” the bishops reported getting just two were for alleged assaults that occurred in 2014 and both were “reported to civil authorities.”


Last year, the Vatican set a critical precedent when it criminally prosecuted a former high-ranking prelate who had been accused of sexually abusing young boys. Josef Weslowski, 67, a former archbishop, was at the time of his death this summer under house arrest in Vatican City. He faced lengthy jail time over the allegations that surfaced while he was the Vatican’s emissary to the Dominican Republic. A member of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Weslowski had served all over the world but was defrocked last year. Thanks to a change in Vatican law under Pope Francis, Weslowski case represented the first time the Holy See initiated such a criminal prosecution.

But for many victims and their advocates, the Catholic Church’s efforts at reform remain suspect. “There is an open, impartial, time-tested process for adjudicating child sex cases. It’s called the secular justice system,” wrote David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests on the advocacy group's website. “That’s where these cases belong, not in some new, untested, biased, self-serving internal church process. This is just the latest iteration of that dangerous pattern.”

Even as the Church has struggled with responding to the sex abuse crisis, the number of priests coming into the Church has continued to decline. In the northeast and mid-west Rust Belt regions, the number of practicing Catholics has also been on the decline, even as parishes in the south and west, buttressed by the significant Latino migration north, have flourished.


“I think the huge ship of the church has begun to turn in a new direction,” says Sister Kate Kuenstler, a canon attorney affiliated with the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ. Kunestler has successfully used church canon law on behalf of congregations in Rome to over turn decisions by the local Catholic hierarchy to close their churches as a way to cope with financial woes. “Remember the church has a long history of moving in a frustratingly slow pace. Francis understands child sex abuse is a criminal act. Clergy are not exempt from this fact. Francis has already made significant change that has done more to protect children since this scandal made headlines.”

Kuenstler says she believes there is one critical difference between secular criminal justice and the Vatican’s system. “The Vatican City State and its criminal law system has no statute of limitations for child abuse. I do not think any crime has a statue of limitation,” says Kuenstler. “This allows all accusations the possibility of a court case.”

Frances Kissling, former President of Catholics For Choice, believes that for the Church to flourish in the 21st century it has to expand the ranks of its priesthood by letting married men and women become ordained, something long resisted by the Church hierarchy.

Kissling says many Catholics are alienated from the Church because they are living their lives in contradiction with Catholic precepts by using birth control, having abortions and getting divorced. “They live lives of seeming hypocrisy with ease,” says Kissling. “But when you participate in an organization where there is a deep spilt between your private life and your church life there can be no passionate membership.”


But for clergy abuse survivor Mark Williams Pope Francis’s change in tone feels transformational. “He is encouraging the laity to be at home enough within the Church to challenge it and that’s healthy,” says Williams who is actively involved in this Morris County, New Jersey parish. “Now you don’t feel as if you will be ridiculed for engaging in a sincere debate.”

Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Catholicism Pope Francis Religion The Catholic Church

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