In bureaucracies everywhere, when someone’s interests are threatened by a cycle of reform, one time-honored resistance strategy is to dig up dirt on the reformers. For maximum effectiveness, the dirt should be related to a brewing crisis in which people are tempted to shoot first and ask questions later.

Whatever its supernatural claims may be, the Vatican is hardly exempt from this very natural law of the jungle.

We’ve already seen it under Pope Francis with regard to Monsignor Battista Ricca, a 58-year-old Italian cleric tapped by the pontiff in June, 2013 as his delegate to the Vatican bank, monitoring a clean-up operation intended to spare the bank future scandals.

In mid-July, 2013, the respected Vatican writer Sandro Magister published charges in the Italian news magazine l’Espresso that Ricca had been involved in homosexual affairs while serving as a papal diplomat in Uruguay a decade before.

While there was no suggestion of sexual abuse or criminal conduct, the revelations were still embarrassing, especially at a time when rumors of a shadowy “gay lobby” that allegedly played a part in the notorious Vatican leaks affair of 2011 and 2012 were in the air.

Many assumed the pope would be forced to remove Ricca. Instead, Francis stood by his man, and Ricca remains on the job.

Now a bigger target seems to be in l’Espresso’s sights, in the form of Australian Cardinal George Pell, the secretary for the economy under Francis and effectively the pope’s finance czar.

On Friday, l’Espresso ran a sensational expose, though not by Magister this time, headlined “The dark side of the Cardinal,” focused on Pell’s record on the sexual abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church in Australia.

There’s no new information in the account, which details criticism of a system for handling abuse claims worked out by Pell when he was the archbishop of Melbourne in Australia from 1996 to 2001. At the time, Pell’s “Melbourne Response” was among the first compensation plans by a Catholic jurisdiction anywhere in the world, but it’s come under fire for allegedly limiting payouts and encouraging victims to keep quiet.

Those complaints were recently aired during a hearing of a Royal Commission in Australia examining the church’s record in which Pell participated from the Vatican via a video link.

It was, admittedly, perhaps not Pell’s finest hour. He compared the Catholic Church to a trucking company, arguing that the company isn’t at fault if a driver molests a woman in violation of company policy. He was trying to make a point about legal liability, but victims – and, for the record, the Australian Trucking Association – were appalled.

Yet the criticism aired at the hearing was already well known, and if it was enough to taint Pell’s standing, then he never should have been brought to Rome in the first place and entrusted with leading the pope’s push for financial glasnost.

What makes the present moment different is that the Vatican is in a frenzy related to ex-Archbishop Josef Wesolowski, a former papal envoy to the Dominican Republic charged with paying underage boys for sexual acts.

Wesolowski was laicized, meaning removed from the priesthood, by Francis in June, and recently placed under house arrest pending a Vatican criminal trial.

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera carried an explosive front-page piece on Friday revealing that Vatican prosecutors found that Wesolowski had an extensive cache of child pornography on his computer, allegedly more than 100,000 files, including photographs and videos.

Investigators reportedly suspect Wesolowski may have been part of a wider ring of accomplices, with the recent arrest of a deacon and former aide to the envoy seen as just the tip of the iceberg.

Also adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Pope Francis this week fired a bishop in Paraguay who sheltered an Argentine priest accused of sexual misconduct in the United States, making him his right-hand man.

In this atmosphere, anyone perceived as having a weak spot on the abuse scandals is suddenly vulnerable, and some media outlets, including l’Espresso, have hinted that Pell’s influence may be waning.

In truth, there are few signs that Pell’s star has dimmed. The Council for the Economy, a policy-setting body which he helped create, is making the decisions that matter, and his secretariat has consolidated control over financial operations remarkably quickly. Among other things, it’s moving ahead in insisting that every Vatican department must have a transparent annual budget.

Pope Francis recently named Pell as a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s powerful missionary department. Pell also succeeded in getting his protégé Anthony Fisher named the new archbishop of Sydney, hardly a sign of a prelate in decline.

Under ordinary circumstances, if a pope shows that kind of support for a cardinal taking fire over the abuse crisis, it might be read as a sign of denial.

In this case, however, many observers will see what happens to Pell as a referendum on something else: Whether Francis will send the signal that you can’t make him nervous by airing dirty laundry about his team.

Oct. 8 Crux event in Rome
As it happens, Pell will be one of the speakers at an Oct. 8 launch event in Rome for Crux to be held at the North American College, the residence for seminarians studying for the priesthood in the city.

Joining Pell will be Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, as well as myself and fellow Crux staff writers Inés San Martín and Michael O’Loughlin.

The event follows a Sept. 11 launch in Boston with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, as well as Harvard law professor and Vatican bank supervisory board member Mary Ann Glendon; Robert Christian, an editor of Millennial Journal; Hosffman Ospino, a theology professor at Boston College; and myself. The panel was moderated by Crux columnist Margery Egan.

Taken together, the two events are designed to underline Crux’s hope to be a platform for smart conversation about Catholicism.

What Francis sees in Opus Dei
Speaking of the recently fired bishop in Paraguay, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano from the small diocese of Ciudad del Este, he is, for the record, a member of the controversial Catholic group Opus Dei.

To be clear, that’s not the reason he lost his job. A cocktail of other factors was involved, including his sheltering an accused abuser priest and his fractious relations with other Paraguayan bishops, which reached a boiling point when he publicly accused the archbishop of Asuncion of being a homosexual.

Most observers in Paraguay believe the anti-Livieres Plano push was at least partly fueled by ideology, by people who didn’t like his traditional stands. Some say that maybe he needed to go, but he wasn’t the only one, and perhaps his downfall was as much about politics as genuine accountability.

Nevertheless, one could read the removal of an Opus Dei bishop as a sign of disfavor from Pope Francis. On the other hand, this Saturday brought a massive signal cutting in the other direction with the beatification of the Rev. Álvaro del Portillo in Madrid, Spain.

Del Portillo was the right-hand man for more than 40 years of St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, and later his successor as the group’s leader. Beatification is the final step before sainthood, entitling the person to be referred to as “Blessed.”

It’s a good measure of how much the times have changed that there’s been little backlash against the Sept. 27 beatification, despite the fact that Opus Dei has a long history of being the church’s premier lightning rod.

When Escrivá was beatified in 1992, and again when he was canonized in 2002, critics around the world howled that it was the leading edge of a right-wing putsch under Pope John Paul II. They cited Escrivá’s alleged links to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, charges of secrecy and cult-like practices within Opus Dei, and both the wealth and conservative politics of some of its members.

Opus Dei famously entered the ranks of cartoon supervillains in Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code,” where an albino monk assassin who whips himself into a bloody frenzy is presented as a member.

Because it’s tougher today to make the argument that Catholicism is lurching to the right under Francis, and also because del Portillo was never as much of a celebrity as Escrivá, people are less inclined to read Saturday’s beatification as part of a bigger picture.

Yet there is something to be gleaned from it, because the gala in Madrid confirms three useful insights — two about Pope Francis, and a third about the way things really work in the Catholic Church.

To begin, it’s clear that Francis supports del Portillo’s cause. Some have suggested that staging the event in Madrid rather than Rome means Francis doesn’t want his fingerprints on it, but that’s a red herring. Francis approved the beatification shortly after he was elected, and since Benedict XVI these events always have been held in the home diocese of the candidate.

Before his election, the future pope made a point of spending more than 40 minutes in prayer at Escrivá’s tomb during a 2003 visit to Rome. Francis also knew a number of Opus Dei people in Argentina, some of whom worked in the villas miserias, the “villas of misery,” meaning the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires.

So what does Francis’ support for Opus Dei tell us?

  • First, Francis may be a bit more conservative than some people think – which, given that some seem to believe he’s Che Guevara in a cassock, may not be saying very much.
  • Granted, Escrivá’s original vision for Opus Dei is neither liberal nor conservative. It was about encouraging Catholics to regard their ordinary everyday work as a path to holiness, getting past the idea that religion is just for Sunday morning.

    Granted, too, in many parts of the world you can find Opus Dei members on all sides of political conflicts, belying the idea that the group has an ideological party line.

    That said, many Opus Dei members skew to the right on matters of both politics and theology. The pope’s affection thus underlines that he’s more a moderate than a progressive, someone who tries to remain open to all camps.

  • Second, the beatification puts an exclamation point on the fact that this pope really, really dislikes clericalism.
  • “Clericalism” is a bit of Catholic argot denoting an exaggerated emphasis on the power and privilege of clergy. It’s a bête noire for Francis, who said in remarks to leaders of religious orders in late 2013 that the “hypocrisy” of clericalism is “one of the worst evils” in the Church, and unless future priests are inoculated against it they risk turning out as “little monsters.”

    In a nutshell, that’s a great deal of what Francis admires about Opus Dei, since Escrivá’s emphasis on the dignity of the laity was a challenge to the ultra-clerical ethos of Spanish Catholicism in the late 1920s, when the group was founded.

  • Here’s the third point: No matter what anybody may think of Opus Dei politically, they’re always going to be looked upon with favor by most popes and other church leaders, for the basic reason that they get things done.
  • Need a big meeting organized? Opus Dei will step up, and you’ll never have to sweat the details. Need a retreat preached in a parish? Call an Opus Dei priest, and he’ll be there on time and ready to go. Need help with a fundraising appeal? Call an Opus Dei businessman, and you’ll get results.

All of which illustrates a key point about Catholicism. From the outside, groups and individuals are usually evaluated on the basis of where they stand on hot-button political issues. From the inside, however, competence often counts for at least as much.

If del Portillo one day is canonized, perhaps he could be the patron saint of customer service. It’s a quality that goes a long way towards explaining Opus Dei’s appeal, even under a pope whose ideological instincts may cut in a slightly different direction.

(Buy John L. Allen Jr’s book on Opus Dei from

What to watch for in the Wesolowski sex abuse case
I published an analysis of the Wesolowski case earlier this week, styling it as an inkblot test for where people think things stand in the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the abuse scandals.

If you’re inclined to think the church is incapable of real reform, then the question is why it’s taken the Vatican so long to act, coupled with skepticism that in the end Wesolowski will truly be held accountable.

If you believe the church has turned over a new leaf, then Wesolowski is the proof. Here’s a high-ranking Vatican diplomat, the kind of guy who not so long ago would have been regarded as untouchable, under house arrest for abuse and facing a prison sentence.

I see three things to watch for as this saga unfolds.

  • First, assuming Wesolowski is convicted by a Vatican court, what sort of punishment will he actually receive?
  • The last time a Vatican trial ended in a criminal conviction for a serious offense, it was the former papal butler, Paolo Gabriele, whose 18-month sentence for leaking secret documents was quickly commuted by a papal pardon.

    In that case, however, the crime was against the pope himself, basically stealing his papers. In this case the offense is against minors, and any act of clemency would probably be read as a lack of resolve.

  • Second, the Vatican has declared that Wesolowski has been stripped of his diplomatic immunity, and that he could be extradited to face prosecution in the Dominican Republic, Poland, or any other civil jurisdiction that wants a shot at him.
  • The question is whether such a request will emerge, and how the Vatican will respond. At the iconic level, probably nothing would scream “reform” so much as a front-page picture of Wesolowski boarding a plane for the Dominican Republic in handcuffs, escorted by civil police.

  • Third and perhaps most consequential in the long run, experts in anti-abuse efforts will be watching to see if the Vatican gets serious about accountability for bishops – not those personally charged with abuse, but those accused of dropping the ball when accusations against others under their authority emerge.

Critics insist that the church’s “zero tolerance” policy means very little if there are no consequences for failing to make it stick, and they cite several cases around the world in which the perception is that bishops have not paid any price.

To take just one example, retired Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels was swept up in a 2010 scandal surrounding a Belgian bishop named Roger Vangheluwe, who acknowledged having sexually abused two nephews over the course of a 15-year period while serving first as a priest and then as bishop.

As revelations surrounding the affair rolled out, a taped conversation came to light between Danneels and one of Vangheluwe’s victims in which the cardinal appears to pressure him to keep quiet about the abuse and to allow Vangheluwe to retire without incident. Two priests came forward to say they had tried to warn Danneels about Vangheluwe in the 1990s, but he had not taken action.

To be fair, Danneels was not Vangheluwe’s superior and had no authority over him in any direct sense. Critics, however, say he should have asked the Vatican to act, and perhaps encouraged the accusers to go public.

Not only has Rome never called Danneels on the carpet for his role in the affair, Francis recently tapped him as a special member of a Synod of Bishops on the family that will meet at the Vatican Oct. 5-19.

In truth, it would even be in Danneel’s best interests for stronger accountability measures to be put in place. If such a system existed and found him blameless, then there would be an effective way to clear his name.

Members of the pope’s new Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, led by Cardinal O’Malley, have said that recommending such measures to the pope will be among their highest priorities. Especially in the wake of the Wesolowski case, all eyes will be on whatever they produce.