ROME – Back in 1980, William Casey, then the campaign manager for candidate Ronald Reagan, coined the phrase “October surprise” to refer to the possibility that incumbent President Jimmy Carter might try to do something dramatic, such as freeing the American hostages in Iran, to boost his prospects ahead of the November elections.
In the end it never happened, and Reagan cruised to victory. Ever since, however, the term “October surprise” has endured in American politics as a metaphor for trying to change the political landscape with some sort of bombshell at the last minute.
On Friday, Pope Francis delivered his own “October surprise” by announcing that he had lifted the statute of limitations in canon law in order to allow prosecution of Father Marko Rupnik, the most famous – or, perhaps more accurately, the most infamous – accused sexual abuser in the Catholic Church at the moment.
The decision came on the heels of what had been a month-long span in which it seemed, for all the world, that the Rupnik case was being relegated to the rear-view mirror. The pope had a friendly meeting with a key Rupnik ally Sept. 15, the Diocese of Rome gave Rupnik’s Centro Aletti a clean bill of health three days later, and recently Rupnik was welcomed into a diocese in his native Slovenia after being kicked out of the Jesuits in June.
Now, however, to paraphrase Mark Twain, it would seem reports of Rupnik’s resurrection may have been greatly exaggerated.
The 68-year-old priest-artist will face some sort of canonical process after all, though when that case will begin, how it will be conducted within the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which charges will be considered and what sort of punishment might be imposed all remain unclear.
As we wait for those details to be filled in, there are three immediate take-aways from the surprise announcement.
First, Francis injected his Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality with at least a degree of relevance it otherwise appeared to lack.
The synod’s final act comes today with the closing Mass, which means reporters and pundits have been preparing their wrap-up pieces all week – and, frankly, prior to Friday, the odds were good that the word “flop” would have figured prominently in many. Despite panegyrics from hand-picked participants during Vatican briefings about an internal climate of listening and communion, no one seemed capable of pointing to anything concrete that might have justified the time and expense.
The final report released Saturday night, technically styled a “synthesis,” mostly soft-pedaled difficult questions by calling for further discussion and study. One media outlet captured the bland result by referring to this as a “decaffeinated” synod.
In light of the move on Rupnik, however, there’s at least one outcome to which anyone seeking to defend the synod can point, beginning with Francis himself: “The Pope is firmly convinced that if there is one thing the Church must learn from the Synod, it is to listen attentively and compassionately to those who are suffering, especially those who feel marginalized from the Church,” a Vatican statement said.
Granted, critics will say this decision should have come much earlier, and that if the pope is genuinely interested in listening, he already should have met Rupnik’s accusers and not just one of his principal apologists. If he really needed a month-long summit to reach those conclusions, cynics might say, things are even worse than we suspected.
Nonetheless, for those inclined to find a silver lining in the synodal experience, the belated concession on Rupnik is at least something.
Second, the move on Rupnik boosts the credibility of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which had pressed Francis to act, but also creates a new set of expectations.
Recent months, frankly, had not been kind to the commission. In April, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, widely regarded as perhaps Catholicism’s leading anti-abuse expert, resigned in protest over what he described as a host of problems in “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.” In June, a mini-scandal broke out over a report from the Associated Press that the commission’s secretary, British Father Andrew Small, had been involved in controversial investments during his previous tenure at the Pontifical Mission Society, although there was no suggestion of wrongdoing.
In general, many observers of the Roman scene had more or less thrown in the towel on the commission, seeing it as largely a paper tiger, especially after its ill-defined absorption by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith as part of the pope’s overhaul of the Roman Curia.
Now, the commission seemingly is back in the game.
Yet under the heading of being careful about what you wish for, the commission also is in new territory in terms of what people, especially abuse survivors, will expect it to do. Up to this point, it’s always been able to disavow responsibility when things go wrong on abuse scandals by claiming that while it advises the pope on matters of general policy, it has no jurisdiction or role in specific cases.
Yet with Rupnik, it’s waded big-time into just such a specific case. Going forward, every abuse survivor in the world who believes officialdom isn’t taking them seriously, or isn’t acting swiftly enough – and, let’s face it, that’s pretty much everyone – will expect the commission to get involved in their situation too.
The commission itself set the new standard in its own statement on the Rupnik decision.
“As a Commission, we remain concerned about the Church’s disciplinary processes and its inadequacies,” it said. “We will remain watchful in ensuring the adequate administration of justice.”
The problem, of course, is that people will hold them to that.
Third, and speaking of expectations, Francis has created some new ones for himself, mostly under the heading of coming clean.
The Rupnik affair now seems reminiscent of what happened in 2018, when Francis initially rejected criticism of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros over his role in a high-profile clerical abuse scandal in Chile, then pivoted after a contentious trip to the country and dispatched investigators, culminating not only in the resignation of Barros but an offer en masse by all the country’s bishops to step down.
Once again, Francis appears to have changed course after experiencing backlash. Now, however, explanations offered back then that the pontiff is on a learning curve likely will ring hollow, because he’s already played that card.
People are going to want an explanation of his conduct, including Francis’s still-mysterious role in the lifting of Rupnik’s 2020 excommunication, and the other vicissitudes in the story. The pope has said he wants to listen to the suffering, but what survivors are demanding isn’t simply a canonical process, however grateful they may be for that development.
To quote the movie “Tombstone,” make no mistake: What survivors are after isn’t revenge, it’s a reckoning. Francis will face growing pressure to deliver, and probably not just on Rupnik but on other problematic aspects of his record, such as the still-enigmatic case of Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta and matters beyond.
In a nutshell, that’s the problem with an October surprise. It changes everything, and even the guy who pulled the rabbit out of the hat can’t always control where it ends up.