‘Pope of the Little Guy’ caught up in the heavy lifting of reform

‘Pope of the Little Guy’ caught up in the heavy lifting of reform

Pope Francis blesses the crowd as he recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, March 14, 2021. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)

Pope Francis legendarily has a keen sense of justice and a hard-wired bias in favor of the underdog, but it’s also clear that Francis, like pretty much every reformer pope before him, is still struggling with the institutional translation of those core instincts.

News Analysis

ROME – In the past week several intriguing news stories moved across the Vatican wire, and the mere act of listing them likely is enough to illustrate what they have in common.

  • In the latest hearing in a Vatican sex abuse trial, an official of the former head of St. Peter’s Basilica testified he’d been made aware of concerns about inappropriate sexual behavior at a pre-seminary on Vatican grounds but denied there were any suggestions of “violence” or “abuse.” A former pre-seminarian who first brought the charges to light also testified, saying he witnessed “dozens” of acts he considered abusive. The principal defendant in the trial is one former pre-seminarian, now a priest, charged with abusing another at a time they were both minors.
  • The pope’s Vatican charity announced this week that 1,200 of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Rome will receive the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for free during Holy Week and Easter. The vaccinations will take place in the Paul VI audience hall, the same setting where Vatican personnel already received their shots.
  • In an effort to contain a ballooning deficit driven by coronavirus-related shortfalls in income, Pope Francis decreed that senior Vatican personnel will receive pay cuts, beginning with cardinals who’ll see their monthly stipends reduced by 10 percent. (The 40 or so Vatican cardinals generally get about $6,000 a month, so that means a cut of roughly $600 each). Department heads will get an 8 percent cut, and other clergy and religious will lose 3 percent. Salaries of ordinary lay employees are largely unaffected, though the pope did also decree a freeze on automatic increases due to seniority.
  • A UK court issued a stinging rebuke to Vatican prosecutors, unfreezing the assets of an Italian financier in London named Gianluigi Torzi, which had been seized at the Vatican’s request as part of a probe into a $400 million London financial deal in which the Vatican claims Torzi and others defrauded it of millions in illegitimate fees. However, Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court rejected the Vatican’s claims, accusing Vatican prosecutors of “appalling” misrepresentations and concluding that the transactions from which Torzi profited were all explicitly approved by Venezuelan Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra and Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the top officials at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
  • Pope Francis appointed Chilean clerical sexual abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the body the pontiff created in 2013 to advise him on reform from the abuse scandals, and which is presently undergoing a process of transformation into a stable Vatican office. Cruz is known as the figure who turned Francis around on the crisis in the Chilean church.

The common element in all five developments is a reaction to scandals involving abuse, either sexual or financial, and the ups and downs of the pope’s efforts to make things right.

Francis legendarily has a keen sense of justice and a hard-wired bias in favor of the underdog, and the initiative of his charitable right-hand man, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to ensure that Rome’s poorest of the poor are not left out of the cycle of vaccinations while people with connections, money, or both, get the shots, is a classic illustration. For that matter, so is the pope’s insistence that the Vatican deficit not be balanced on the backs of worker bees, and that whatever belt-tightening is required begins with those Vatican personnel wearing crimson and purple.

In all honesty, those pays cuts won’t really move the needle – saving maybe $25,000 on cardinals’ pay every year isn’t a lasting solution to a $60 million deficit. Everyone knows the only way to balance the books is to cut payroll, by far the Vatican’s biggest expense, but so far Francis has refused to let anyone go in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

That, of course, is also an expression of the pontiff’s real concern for the little guy.

However, it’s also clear that Francis, like pretty much every reformer pope before him, is still struggling with the institutional translation of those core instincts.

The quirky abuse trial currently playing out in a Vatican court is a good example.

At the moment, it appears that defense attorneys are trying to establish that whatever happened inside the Pre-Seminary of St. Pius X, it was largely consensual behavior among sexually developing adolescents. However that shakes out, it seems clear senior Vatican officials were aware of concerns that something hinky was going on, and, aside from ordering the rector removed, didn’t really do much until Francis waived a requirement in Vatican law at the time that required an accuser to come forward within a year of the alleged offense in order to launch a criminal prosecution after the charges became public.

At least to the extent knows, none of those officials are currently under investigation or facing disciplinary consequences. The pope did accept the resignation of Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the former archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica and one of the officials who’d been made aware of the concerns, on Feb. 20, but ostensibly that was for reasons of age since Comastri is now 77.

Similarly on the London scandal, the UK judge basically lobbed the ball back into the Vatican’s court, essentially ruling that if something untoward occurred, it was approved by the two highest authorities in the Secretariat of State, so ultimately they’re responsible – as we Americans like to say, “You break it, you bought it.”

Apparently, the Vatican’s traditional strategy in such cases, which is finding a convenient fall guy (usually a shady Italian financier, sometimes a lower-level Vatican operative) while insulating higher-ups from blame, doesn’t cut much ice in courts outside the Vatican City State. It remains to be seen now how Vatican prosecutors will react.

In any reform, stating principles and staging feel-good ways to illustrate them, however inspiring, is always the easy part. Figuring out how to embed those principles in operations – and being willing to pay the political price for doing so – is where the heavy lifting starts, and that would seem to be where Pope Francis finds himself now.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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