Let’s face it: Pope Francis may be a smash hit in plenty of other areas, but in the eyes of many survivors of clerical sexual abuse and their most prominent advocates, his track record so far leaves something to be desired.
In that context, news that the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has hired Teresa Kettlekamp, the former executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, to help lead the Vatican’s own anti-abuse effort, is a badly needed dose of good news.
Kettlekamp spoke to Crux on Thursday, marking her first interview since taking her new Vatican position.
Anyone who knows the global situation of the Catholic Church with regard to the sexual abuse issue realizes two things:
- First, whatever its shortcomings, the Catholic Church in the United States has adopted tougher and more sweeping policies than most nations in the world, and for sure has invested greater resources in developing cutting-edge abuse prevention and detection programs.
- Second, Kettelkamp is clearly a reformer on the abuse issue, a former Illinois police colonel who has no tolerance for law-breakers or lax enforcement procedures.
The fact that Kettelkamp has been taken on by the Vatican is thus another sign that reformers are in the ascendant in Rome, and deniers are on the run.
The development comes at a time when Pope Francis’ response to the sexual abuse mess in the Church has come under mounting fire. Though the merits of any particular item in the bill of indictment may be debated, the overall effect has been to seed doubt as to whether the fight against child abuse is truly a priority for the pontiff.
To begin with, Francis continues to draw criticism for his 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid to the diocese of Osorno, Chile, despite his reputation as an apologist for that country’s most notorious abuser priests, Fernando Karadima.
The one-year anniversary of Barros’ installation was marked on March 21, and one of Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, publicly complained that “the Church does not listen to the people” and added that Pope Francis “is a sadness because he doesn’t care what has happened in Osorno.”
Adding insult to injury, Francis was captured on an iPhone video last year telling a Chilean Catholic that opposition to the Barros was being whipped up by “leftists” guilty of “foolishness.”
On another front, one of the two survivors named to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Peter Saunders of the U.K., was recently given an involuntary leave of absence by other commission members because of his outspoken criticism of Pope Francis, including on the Barros dispute.
Commission members insisted that Saunders was being disingenuous, because he couldn’t simultaneously be a public lighting rod and also a constructive behind-the-scenes force for change, but whatever the logic of the move, the optics were not reassuring for survivors.
There’s also the fact that on at least two recent occasions, Francis has passed on obvious opportunities to meet survivors and to hear their stories.
One came when the pontiff travelled to Mexico, where abuse scandals surrounding the founder of the Legion of Christ, the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, are still a national sore point, and the other in early March, when a group of Australian survivors travelled to Rome to hear Cardinal George Pell testify via video link before a Royal Commission investigating the church’s response to abuse cases.
In the latter instance, the Vatican offered the seemingly weak explanation that no “official request” for a meeting with the pope had been made, even though the survivors told everyone who would listen, including Pell, they wanted one.
In that context, the fact that the Vatican has hired Kettlekamp – an American, a lay woman, and someone with solid reform credentials – will likely strike many people as a sign that hope is not lost for progress on Francis’ watch.
“I just have this heart for children and keeping them safe,” she told Crux, “and if I can use the gifts I have to help children be safe in areas where right now they go to bed and night and don’t feel safe, you can’t beat that.”
Of course, the real test will be what impact Kettelkamp has going forward, and only time will tell. In the here-and-now, however, it’s probably the best news that Francis and his team have generated on the abuse front for a while.
As a footnote, American Catholics may also find the news reassuring for another reason.
With the departure of Archbishop Peter Wells, formerly the number three official in the Secretariat of State and unofficially the “go-to guy” in the Vatican for Americans, the U.S. is currently at a low ebb in terms of its influence and footprint in Rome.
The choice of an American to help shape the Church’s response to a persistent source of heartache, therefore, is also a signal that “no Americans need apply” is not actually becoming the unofficial hiring policy of the Francis papacy.