ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – In what amounts to his first public comments on the most senior Church official ever criminally convicted of the cover-up of child sexual abuse, as opposed to the crime itself, Pope Francis said Sunday it’s possible French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin “is not innocent.”
In early March, the 68-year-old Barbarin was found guilty in a French trial and sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence over one count of failure to report a charge of sexual abuse against one of his priests. Barbarin has vowed to appeal but also submitted his resignation to the pope.
Francis refused it, in what some observers in France took as a show of support for Barbarin, though the pontiff’s words Sunday suggest caution.
“I cannot accept his resignation,” Francis said, arguing that judicially “there’s the right to the presumption of innocence.” However, he said, after the appeal process ends with a definitive ruling “we’ll see what happens.”
In international law, as long as the judicial cause is open, the pope insisted, the accused is presumed innocent.
“Perhaps [Barbarin] is not innocent, but there’s the presumption of innocence,” the pope said, and warned against “media pressure” that sometimes unfairly accuses an innocent priest.
On March 7, a French court found Barbarin guilty of covering up abuse by Father Bernard Preynat at Lyon’s Saint-Luc Parish, where he ran a large Catholic Scout group in the 1970s and 1980s. Although Barbarin did not become head of the Lyon archdiocese until 2002, it was alleged that he had known of the abuse at least since 2010.
Barbarin suspended Preynat in 2015, and in 2016 the priest was charged with abuse and rape. He is awaiting trial.
Barbarin was in Rome March 18 to present his resignation to the pope, who instead suggested the French prelate temporarily leave the archdiocese under the vicar general awaiting his appeal.
The rest of the pontiff’s in-flight news conference Sunday turned around the pope’s weekend trip to Morocco.
Citing a lack of time, as the flight was less than three hours long, the Vatican’s interim spokesman with the pope’s green-light cut the exchange off after a little over 40 minutes. As a result, English-speaking journalists weren’t able to ask a question, a fate that has befallen other language groups in the past.
On Islam, the pope was asked about the risk Muslims face if they want to convert to Christianity in Muslim-majority countries, as in many it’s banned, if not by law, in practice, with people facing prison or death for joining the Church.
Freedom of religion, Francis said, “grows,” even among Catholics, as there are some who still don’t believe what the Second Vatican Council taught on freedom of conscience and religion. Both Catholics and Muslims, he said, have to “grow.”
The pontiff then offered a comparison with Western countries, saying that he’s worried about a backpedaling on the freedom of conscience, with “doctors in Christian medical facilities [who] don’t have the right to conscientious objection, perhaps with euthanasia.”
“We Christians are in danger that some Christian governments will take from us the right to freedom of conscience, and this is a first step for religious freedom,” he said.
Asked about politicians who build walls, Francis said that those who build walls “will be prisoners of the walls they put up, this is history.”
Francis also said that there are many people of goodwill, including Catholics, who are prisoners of fear, “the usual preaching of populism.”
“They sow fear, and then make decisions,” Francis said, adding that fear is the beginning of dictatorships, using Adolph Hitler as an example.
“We know the result [of Hitler]” he said. “Let’s learn from history, this is not new. To sow fear is to collect evil and sterility.”
The pontiff also accused Europe of lacking “historical memory” to acknowledge the fact it was built with migrants, and sent millions of immigrants to the Americas after WWI and WWII.
“Let’s think about the generosity of the countries today knocking on Europe’s door,” he said, noting that he too is the son of Italian immigrants who went to Argentina after WWII.
Francis said a first step to address the migrant crisis is to invest in education and infrastructure of the countries from which people are fleeing, mostly due to wars and hunger.
As he’s done several times before, Francis also said that “it’s true,” a country can’t welcome everyone, but “there’s the entire Europe” to distribute and integrate the people trying to come in.
The pontiff also took a typical swipe at the arms trade.
“If Europe, as generous as it is, sells weapons to Yemen used to killed children, how can Europe be coherent?” he said. “I mean this: Europe is selling the weapons.”
Asked about his recurrent references to the Devil, Francis said that he tries to give “every explanation,” but at a certain point, things cannot be understood without acknowledging the reality of evil.
He cited pornography depicting child sexual abuse, which is easily found online and transmitted live upon request, asking: “Those responsible for public order can’t do anything?”
“It’s a global plague, but it cannot be understood without the spirit of evil,” Francis insisted.
Calling for concrete responses to abuse cases, the pope pointed to the U.S. bishops, who at the end of last year were set to vote on guidelines for bishops’ accountability in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal, and ex-cardinal and now ex-priest accused of various forms of sexual abuse and misconduct.
The Americans were told to stand down by the Vatican awaiting the outcome of the pope’s February summit. Francis said he stopped the bishops because their proposals were all about “methodology,” completely disregarding the spiritual dimension.
“The Church is not a congregationalist church, but Catholic,” and both bishops and the pope are called to take responsibility for the crisis and the solution, Francis said, “with disciplinary measures, prayer, penitence and accusing oneself.”