Amazon synod, abuse crisis dominate 2019 for Pope Francis

Amazon synod, abuse crisis dominate 2019 for Pope Francis

Amazon synod, abuse crisis dominate 2019 for Pope Francis

Pope Francis looks up to pray in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, near Rome's Spanish Steps, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2019, an annual tradition marking the start of the city's holiday season. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

Often described as the “Energizer bunny of popes,” Pope Francis in 2019 traveled more miles than ever before, addressed the full scope of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and made key personnel moves, including one abuse survivors had been demanding for years.

Often described as the “Energizer bunny of popes,” Pope Francis in 2019 traveled more miles than ever before, addressed the full scope of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, and made key personnel moves, including one that abuse survivors had been demanding for years.

The February abuse summit

When Francis summoned the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences and the leaders of the men’s and women’s religious orders to Rome for a Feb. 21-24, 2019 meeting, there was little to no information given out to describe the event.

However, it became evident that in the pope’s mind, beyond fostering transparency and discussing best practices, an important element of the meeting would be guaranteeing that no bishop in the future could say: “I didn’t know how to respond.”

Particularly in countries where the abuse crisis still seems like a “foreign” problem, there are bishops who believe that moving abusive priests to a different parish – or a different country – is a solution, or that priests can be returned to ministry after receiving “treatment” for sexual disorders. After their meeting in Rome, those excuses will no longer fly.

Abuse prevention expert and one of the organizers of the summit, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, acknowledged to Crux in an interview that it served as a “warning” from the pope.

“I believe there’s a general growth in the perception of the gravity of the problem, but we are far away from coming to the point of understanding how deep the problem is in society at large and how big the numbers are according to all experts,” Zollner said in November. “And the Church is of course, always part of this.”

At the end of the summit, the Holy See promised three things that should happen in the near future: A new law from the pope for the Vatican City State on “the protection of minors and vulnerable persons”, the publication of a handbook to help bishops around the world understand their duties and responsibilities for abuse cases, and the creation of task forces to help bishops’ conferences and dioceses that find it difficult to confront the issue.

Arguably, “near future” is a somewhat flexible term for an institution that is 2,000 years old, yet of the three, only the first has actually materialized. Task forces are reportedly being set up, but people who are supposed to be in the know are still unclear on how they will work, including where the funding will come from.

However, there have been other decisions coming as a direct result of the February abuse summit. First, a motu proprio was issued by the pope in May, Vox extis lux mundi, known in English as “You are the light of the world.”

According to the new law, for the first time, every diocese in the world is required to have a public and accessible system for reporting both sexual abuse and abuse cover-up, which must be in place by June 1, 2020. All clerics and religious are required to report abuse or its cover-up, and they will receive “whistle blower” protection.

Lauded by many and criticized by others, one of the most contentious elements of the law is that it basically has bishops policing bishops: Metropolitan archbishops are required to conduct a preliminary investigation when a report is made, and the Vatican departments to whom the results are submitted are required to act in a timely fashion, although the new legislation provides for the participation by lay experts in the preliminary investigations.

RELATED: Victim ignored by bishop today pushes Mexican Church on reform

Another direct result of the summit was the decision, announced days before Christmas, to make abuse investigations exempt from being under the pontifical secret. Among other things, this means that church officials will no longer be able to blame the Vatican or the pope for their unwillingness to cooperate with civil authorities.

The measure was something several of the prelates who were in Rome in February had asked for, but as abuse survivor Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors noted in a Dec. 20 tweet, the commission had formally requested the removal of the pontifical secret in abuse cases in 2017.

Bishops gathered in Rome, along with abuse survivors, had also demanded transparency, but there is still work to be done, including the publication of a report on former American cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He was removed from the priesthood earlier this year, but a document explaining how he managed to rise up the ladder despite the persistent rumors that he abused seminarians still hasn’t come out.

During their ad limina visits to the Vatican that began in November, the U.S. bishops asked the pope and his Secretary of State to release the McCarrick report, but so far to no avail. Several sources have told Crux that one reason the report has not been released is because it’s not completely finished: Information is still being sent to the Vatican or discovered in the archives.

Another big question mark is the situation of Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who is facing trial in Argentina for allegedly abusing seminarians and for misusing church and state funds. Despite evidence including gay porn and selfies depicting overt sexual acts on his phone, Francis gave him a Vatican job in 2017.

The bishop was suspended from his Vatican position in January, but he continues to live in the Casa Santa Marta, the residence within the Vatican grounds where Francis lives. Furthermore, Zanchetta used a Vatican-issued certificate claiming that he works and lives there to justify to an Argentine judge that he had to go back to Rome. According to sources, the bishop was still going to his office in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See earlier this month.

RELATED: Suspended Vatican official’s former diocesan offices raided in Argentina

The Synod of Bishops on the Amazon

Until Francis, the Synod of Bishops, a consulting body summoned by the pope to give advice on a wide range of issues, was often considered a non-event, too boring to be talked about outside the circle of Vatican news junkies.

Yet Francis has managed to make it one of the hottest topics in the Church, and this year focused the body’s attention on the Amazon region.

Though he said several times that the synod wasn’t to discuss the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood to address the priest shortage, nor was it about other so-called hot button issues, including the ordination of women into the diaconate, both the media and many of the synod’s most progressive participants turned it into a discussion on these topics, especially outside of the synod hall.

The summit concluded with a majority of the 184 bishops and other clergy voting to approve each paragraph of the final 30-page document, “Amazonia: New Ways for the Church and for an Integral Ecology,” which offers a narrow opening to ordain married men in remote areas of the 9-country region, although the proposed language limits the ordination to men who are already deacons.

The document is in no way binding. As a matter of fact, Francis is expected to release his own reflections on the synod in the first quarter of 2020.

Yet in his own closing remarks, the pontiff seemed to scold those in the hall who focused too much on intra-ecclesial debates, and he urged Catholics from around the world not to be bogged down by these matters.

There are some “elite” Catholics, he said, who will focus on the “little things,” failing to see the forest for the trees, focusing on “disciplinary things” that though important, are not at the core of the synod.

Instead, he urged Catholics to focus on the four diagnoses the synod made: cultural, social, pastoral and ecological.

RELATED: Pope at synod’s close: Don’t focus on Church debates but the Amazon

However much happened inside the synod hall, this year there seemed to be more activities outside of it than usual, not only due to the willingness of synod participants to give media interviews, but also because of the “parallel” synod events organized by various groups.

For instance, on Oct. 20, several dozen of the synod fathers renewed what is known as the “Catacombs pact,” originally signed in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome in 1965 by 42 prelates at the Second Vatican Council calling for a “poor church.”

RELATED: Amazon bishops pledge poverty, spurning plastics and taking the bus

And then there was the “Pachamama,” a term used even by Francis to refer to a set of wood carvings depicting topless, pregnant women, that first made an appearance during a prayer service held in the Vatican Gardens on the eve of the synod.

According to Father Fernando Lopez, a Jesuit, and a member of the “Itinerant Group,” composed of men and women, religious and lay, who travel around the Amazon preaching the Gospel in extremely remote areas, the image of the pregnant woman “represents life.”

“We were all born from a mother, and we all have a mother who was pregnant and delivered us to life,” he told Crux at the time. “It’s a mystery, life itself, that signifies in a way that God is also mother, she’s engendered us and cares for life.”

RELATED: Synod’s most debated figure was back at Saturday’s “Way of the Cross”

Days before the synod’s conclusion, Austrian layman Alexander Tschugguel saw it as his duty to vandalize Rome’s church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, stealing several of the statues that were there as part of a display set up by indigenous people, and filmed himself as he threw them into the Tiber River, to the acclaim of traditional Catholics who saw the statues as a pagan symbol.

The statues were later recovered by the Italian police, and Francis apologized to the indigenous for the incident.

Personnel moves

Francis made several key personnel moves in 2019, two of which came right before the end of the calendar year. He appointed Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from Manila, Philippines, as the new head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and accepted the resignation of Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano as Dean of the College of Cardinals.

Also known as Propaganda Fidei, the office Tagle now heads is tasked with the Catholic Church’s missionary outreach, much of which happens in Asia, where Christians are a small minority.

Many Vatican observers have long seen Tagle as a “papabile,” meaning a possible for pope. Though in some quarters he is seen as “too liberal,” the 62-year-old received his red hat from Pope Benedict XVI.

On Dec. 21, Francis accepted the resignation of Sodano from his position as the Dean of the College of Cardinals. This was, arguably, one of the personnel moves most wanted by clerical abuse victims, particularly those in Chile. Church watchers have long pointed to Sodano as being at least partly responsible for the ongoing crisis there, since he spent a decade as papal representative to the Latin American country.

RELATED: On Cardinal Sodano and the meaning of ‘accountability’

Sodano had a strong influence in Chile, arguably the non-English speaking country most affected by the abuse crisis, even after leaving, playing a key role in the appointment of many of the bishops who today are being questioned by the country’s civil authorities for the cover up and abuse of minors.

Some believe that when John Paul II went to Chile in 1987, he had a first-hand experience of a “popular Church” and became worried about a possible radicalization of the Chilean Church, that in its plight against dictator Augusto Pinochet was leaning towards Marxism.

Chile was a petri-dish for the appointment of conservative bishops who were more concerned with the Church’s reputation than with helping victims of clerical abuse.

RELATED: Priest says ‘religious ideologies’ complicate Chile’s abuse crisis

However, this country is also evidence that abuse knows no ideological lines: Among the hundreds of priests who have been charged of abusing minors, many removed from the clerical state this year, are those identified with both sides of the political spectrum.

The most infamous include the former chancellor of Santiago, the country’s capital, who was removed from the priesthood earlier this year, after pleading guilty to abusing several of his own nephews. Part of his job description was receiving allegations from abuse victims.

Eugenio Valenzuela, former provincial of the Jesuits in Chile was also removed from the priesthood, accused of abusing at least one man but also of having covered up for late Jesuit Renato Poblete, once one of Chile’s favorite left-leaning priests.

RELATED: 221 priests, 8 bishops face probes for abuse and cover-up in Chile

Other relatively important appointments this year:

  • Spanish Jesuit Juan Antonio Guerrero as the new Secretary for the Economy, replacing Cardinal George Pell, who is in Australia awaiting his appeal to the Supreme Court after being found guilty of historic sexual abuse.
  • American Archbishop Joseph Marino as president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome, where the Holy See’s diplomats are trained before being sent on mission.
  • Italian lay banker Carmelo Barbagallo as President of the Financial Information Authority, succeeding Rene Brülhart, who left his position after a confusing episode over Vatican investments.
  • Italian Gianluca Gauzzi Broccoletti as head of the Vatican gendarmes, the city state’s police force, replacing longtime head Domenico Giani. Giani resigned following the leak of internal documents over the same scandal that ended Brülhart’s time in the Holy See.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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