Recently two different constituencies in the Catholic Church have complained of feeling misunderstood or let down by Pope Francis, and it’s instructive to compare the pontiff’s responses in each case.
One group is made up of Eastern Catholics, especially the 5 million-strong Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, while the other is composed of survivors of clerical sexual abuse. In a nutshell, the pope’s reaction to the former seems a textbook example of effective outreach, while the latter so far appears largely a tale of missed opportunities.
To begin with Greek Catholics, many felt that Francis’ historic Feb. 12 meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in Havana, Cuba, was a propaganda coup for Moscow, and that the joint declaration the two men issued was even worse — mostly a series of Catholic concessions to the Russians, including language that could be read to invalidate criticism of Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine.
While Francis was visiting Mexico Feb. 12-17, those complaints gathered force in the Eastern Catholic world, and it was clear by trip’s end that Francis had heard them.
On the plane on the way back to Rome, the pope said he understood why many Greek Catholics felt “deeply disappointed and betrayed by Rome,” and said bluntly that the joint declaration he signed with Kirill is “debatable.” He also affirmed that the head of the Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Schevchuk, an old friend from Buenos Aires, is a loyal “son of the Church.”
On Saturday, Francis held an audience with members of the Permanent Synod of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, receiving the gift of an icon. The moment was captured in official Vatican photos that project a show of solidarity. (To be fair, the meeting was on the calendar well before the blowback over the summit with Kirill, so it was more a happy coincidence than conscious damage control.)
Afterward, Greek Catholic leaders issued a statement saying “the Holy Father heard us.”
Meanwhile, survivors of sexual abuse, as well as their families and advocates, have had their own reasons of late for feeling ambivalent about Francis.
They’ve complained that he appointed a bishop in Chile known as an apologist for that country’s most notorious abuser priest. They’ve watched as a survivor on the pope’s anti-abuse panel was assigned an involuntary leave of absence by fellow members after voicing criticism over the Chile appointment and other matters, and they also wonder why Francis hasn’t had any reaction to criticism of Cardinal George Pell, his hand-chosen financial reformer, for Pell’s record on abuse cases in Australia.
Survivors also noted that Francis did not meet abuse victims during his trip to Mexico last month, even though that country was hard-hit by a scandal surrounding the Legion of Christ and its late founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado.
So far, Francis has not addressed those concerns in his own voice, apparently content to let others do it for him.
Last week, a group of 15 Australian survivors, along with relatives and supporters, were in Rome to watch Pell testify before a Royal Commission in their country via video link. They told everyone who would listen that they’d like to meet the pope, and at one stage Pell released a statement vowing to try to help make it happen.
It was a bit mystifying, then, to hear a Vatican spokesman assert on Friday that no meeting would take place because there had been no “official request.” Everyone knew the victims wanted it, and Francis rarely has shown himself to be a slave to protocol when he’s determined to do something.
There are at least three factors that may help explain Francis’ differing responses in the two cases.
To begin with, the critics from the Greek Catholic world included a number of bishops, including prelates personally known to Francis. Any pope would take that seriously, especially when those bishops represent a Church with a long history of suffering and martyrdom, and a country currently facing a foreign incursion.
Moreover, it may be that Francis thought the criticism from Greek Catholics was warranted, while regarding at least some of the complaints from survivor’s advocacy groups as off the mark.
We already know what he thinks of objections to his choice of the Chilean bishop, since in a video recorded last fall on an iPad in St. Peter’s Square, Francis can be heard telling a Chilean Catholic not to “be led by the nose by the leftists who have plotted this,” referring to the pressure campaign against the bishop.
As for Pell, Francis is aware that many Australian Catholics view the charges against him as exaggerated, and that the pressure may have more to do with the Royal Commission’s perceived need to bring down a prominent target.
Francis may be reluctant to feed what he regards as unfair criticism by appearing to take it seriously. Perhaps he, or his advisers, worried that meeting a group of victims who were in Rome specifically to complain about Pell could have been read in that sense — even though Pell himself did meet several survivors, supported a meeting with the pope, and did what he could to arrange it.
Finally, it also could be that Francis simply feels inside his comfort zone with regard to Eastern Catholics, while he’s not quite so sure of his instincts on the abuse issue.
From 1998 to 2013, then-Archbishop and later Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also the head of the Ordinariate for Faithful of the Eastern Rites in Argentina, giving him two decades of experience in knowing these churches and their people.
Ecumenism is a lifetime passion for Francis, reflected in his outreach since his election to a variety of different denominations, with a pride of place for the Eastern Orthodox. In that context, Francis may feel that when a problem arises, he instinctively knows the right thing to say or the right gesture to deliver.
On the abuse front, however, he doesn’t have the same background.
The abuse crisis as Americans and others understand it — massive litigation and payouts, saturation media coverage, and revelations of large numbers of both offenders and victims — really hadn’t arrived in Argentina during the time Bergoglio was in Buenos Aires. (The Argentine bishops didn’t adopt a set of anti-abuse guidelines until last year.)
There are many things a Latin American pastor arguably is better positioned to grasp than most, including the realities of poverty, violence, and social exclusion. The sexual abuse crisis in the Church, however, probably isn’t among them. The creation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, entrusting it to Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, may have been in part a sign that Francis himself isn’t fully comfortable and needs help.
Further, the highest profile case to erupt on his watch in Argentina involved a well-known priest named Julio César Grassi, who was convicted in 2009 on two counts of abuse, a sentence that was upheld in 2013.
During the time the future pope was head of the bishops’ conference, it commissioned a renowned jurist to study the case who concluded Grassi is innocent. Influential Catholics continue to believe that, including the bishop of Grassi’s diocese of Morón, who said in 2013 when Grassi’s sentence was confirmed there are still “doubts about his guilt.”
In light of that history, Francis may feel a gut-level hesitation to wade into situations he doesn’t think he fully understands, at the risk of making things worse or being manipulated by people with an axe to grind.
It’s clear Francis is more spontaneous with his gestures and speech when he feels at ease.
My Crux colleague Inés San Martín, herself an Argentinian, has pointed out that the pope’s political rhetoric is generally much sharper when he’s in Latin America than, for example, in the United States or before the European Parliament, perhaps because he believes he knows the personalities and the issues much better.
Yet Francis also clearly realizes the incalculable damage clerical abuse inflicts on victims, once comparing it to a Black Mass in terms of utter sacrilege. He knows the scandals have taken an enormous toll on the Church’s morale and its public image, and also grasps that on some things, it’s not enough to allow others to carry the ball — a pope has to signal his personal commitment to reform.
For those reasons, Francis may feel mounting pressure to expand his comfort zone to include abuse survivors.
The pope already has met survivors, but finding an occasion to do so again in the not-too-distant future, in a context where he doesn’t have to worry about being seen as endorsing any agenda other than hearing people’s stories and pledging his pastoral support, would be one way to start.