ROME – Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago is clearly irked with a local TV station, NBC5, for allegedly editing a comment he made in a recent interview to suggest he and Pope Francis don’t regard the clerical sexual abuse crisis as a priority.
“He’s got to get on with other things,” Cupich said of Francis, “talking about the environment and protecting migrants and carrying on the work of the Church. We’re not going to go down a rabbit hole on this.”
In fact, Cupich insists, he was referring not to the abuse crisis in general but to the accusation made by a former papal ambassador in the U.S. that Francis was warned of sexual misconduct concerns about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013 and ignored them. Cupich has already issued a statement to that effect, and he directed that it be read out at Chicago-area Masses on Sunday.
For sure, Cupich has a point, even if consuming Mass time for a spat with a TV station might be seen by some as a slight overreaction.
However, what shouldn’t be missed in the “Cardinal v. Media” sideshow is that there’s a real truth embedded in Cupich’s original statement, however misinterpreted it may have been: There is arguably no higher priority in Catholicism right now than dealing with the abuse crisis, but that doesn’t mean other important issues have gone on holiday while the Church sorts it all out.
Two tragedies from different parts of the world in recent days illustrate the point.
We’ll start in mid-August, when Father Michael Akawu was shot to death in a suburb of Abuja, the national capital of Nigeria, called Gwagwalada.
According to Church officials in Nigeria, there’s no suggestion that Akawu was specifically targeted or that the killing had any religious, sectarian or ethnic overtones. That’s important information in Nigeria, home of the radical Islamist “Boko Haram” movement, and also home to the largest mixed Christian/Muslim population anywhere in the world.
Instead, according to Father Patrick Alumuku, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Abuja and a longtime friend of Crux, Akawu died in the course of a robbery at a supermarket where he had gone to do some shopping for the rectory of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, Dobi, where he worked as an assistant parish priest.
Akawu was a young priest, having been ordained only last year. According to Alumuku, speaking to local media, the loss has stung in a special way because of what Akawu represented.
“It is a very sad moment for us because Father Akawu was a sign of the growing local Church in the Federal Capital Territory,” Alumuku said. “He was the first indigenous priest of the local tribe here in the nation’s capital.”
In that sense, Akawu’s story embodies three truths about Catholicism in the 21st century:
- The growth of Catholicism in the developing world, above all Africa, has been phenonemal. The Catholic population of sub-Sharan Africa grew by almost 7,000 percent in the last quarter of the 20th century alone, making it by far the most dramatic zone of expansion for the Church anywhere in the world. That growth places strains on local churches that most of the Catholic communities of Western Europe and North America have a hard time imagining.
- The fact that Catholic leaders in the developing world often face a lethal cocktail of poverty, crime and corruption in their own backyards make it difficult to focus on much else.
- Much of Africa lags significantly behind the rest of the Catholic world in coming to grips with the clerical sexual abuse scandals, but there are reasons having to with the reality of the local situation why that’s the case.
Around the same time as the killing of Akawu, a Mexican priest named Father Miguel Gerardo Flores Hernández was also found dead in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, known for civil unrest and for being an epicenter for the country’s drug production and trafficking.
Auxiliary Bishop Herculano Medina Gargias called the incident an “isolated case,” meaning he didn’t think it was part of a broader new killing spree directed at Catholic clergy. Still, the fact remains that at least 24 Catholic priests have been killed in Mexico in the past six years, the majority in cases related to organized crime or after threats from drug dealers, who see the Catholic Church as an obstacle to their business.
In general, the narco-cartels are able to pay off or intimidate the police, the army, the press, the government, and any other forces capable of standing in their way in the areas of Mexico under their control. That only leaves the Catholic Church, and priests have been paying the price for some time now.
The point here is not that Catholic leaders in Mexico don’t grasp the urgency of coming to grips with the sexual abuse issue. The country was home to the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was found guilty by the Vatican of sexual abuse and misconduct and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance.
It’s rather that if you’re a Catholic bishop in Mexico today, you also have to be worried about the very lives of your priests – and you might wish that the rest of the world paid as much attention to that as it does to accusations against the pope lodged by one of his former ambassadors.
To repeat, no one in their right mind would suggest that Francis, or any local bishop anywhere in the world, has any excuse for not making the effort to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse anything less than an absolute priority.
However, it is to say that a legitimate fixation on that front should not obscure other truths about Catholicism in our time – because those truths aren’t going away, whether we choose to acknowledge them for the moment or not.