ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pressed by reporters to respond to allegations by a former papal ambassador to the United States that he lifted sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick despite knowing about misconduct allegations, Pope Francis on Sunday delivered a response that could be loosely translated as, “Do your job!”
“I read the statement this morning,” Francis said of an 11-page statement released by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who served as the papal nuncio in the United States from 2011 to 2016.
“I read it, and I will say, honestly … to you [looking at the journalist who asked the question] and all of you who are interested: You read the statement attentively, and you make your own judgment. I will not say a single word about this.”
During a 45-minute press conference he gave on his way back from Ireland, Francis spoke about many things, from abortion to how parents should react when a child informs them they are gay. Yet when it came to the allegations made against him, he refused to answer directly.
“I believe the statement speaks for itself, and you have enough journalistic capacity to reach the conclusions,” he said.
“It’s an act of faith,” the pope said to a plane full of reporters from different nationalities. “When time has passed, and you have the conclusions, maybe I will say some more. But I want for your professional maturity to do the job,” adding, “It will be good for you.”
After he told reporters to “make your own judgement” over the accusations, an English-speaking journalist asked the pope when he’d first learned about the allegations.
“This is a part of the statement on McCarrick. Study it, and then I’ll speak,” the pope said. “I await your comment on the document … I would like that.”
At another point, Francis referred to a 90-minute meeting he had in Ireland with eight survivors of various forms of abuse, including victims of sexual abuse, abuses of power and abuse of conscience, saying that he “suffered a lot” during the encounter, but “I needed to listen to these eight people.”
The pontiff added that during the meeting he’d learned about things he’d never heard of before, including the fact that single mothers in Ireland had their children taken from them by religious orders that then gave them up for adoption. If either the mother or the child tried to search for one another, they were told it was a “mortal sin.”
Francis reiterated what he told the 300,000 people who had gathered in Phoenix Park for the Mass on Sunday afternoon: Trying to find one’s child or mother is not a sin, but it’s following the fourth commandment.
“The things I said today, some of them I didn’t know about,” Francis said, referring to an apology he read before a Sunday Mass in Dublin, which he said he’d crafted with the eight survivors the day before.
“It was painful for me, but it had the consolation of clarifying some things,” he said.
Abortion is not a religious problem
Francis was also asked about abortion, following two recent developments – the legalization of the practice in Ireland after a national referendum repealed an amendment that protected life from conception, and the failure of a bill in the Senate of his native Argentina to legalize abortion on demand.
Francis said that it’s not a “religious problem.”
“We’re not against abortion because of religion. It’s a human problem that must be studied from anthropology,” he said.
Asked what he’d tell a parent who finds out his child is gay, the pope said: “I would first tell him to pray, not to condemn, to dialogue, to understand, to make a space for the son or daughter to express him or herself.”
The pontiff also said that if the “tendency is manifested” during childhood, “there’s a lot that can be done with psychiatry to see how things are,” but that when the tendency is manifested when the person is “20 or so,” it’s different.
“I would never say that silence is a solution, to ignore a son or a daughter with a homosexual tendency is a lack of paternity [or maternity],” he said. “Always dialogue, because that son, that daughter, has the right to a family. Don’t send them away. This is a big challenge.”
False accusations against priests
Francis was asked about a petition calling for the resignation of French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, who is facing criminal prosecution for allegedly failing to act on a case of abuse.
The pope deflected part of the question and never mentioned Barbarin. He said that if there are “suspicions, evidence or half-evidence,” there’s nothing wrong with launching an investigation, but always upholding the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.
He warned journalists against creating an “environment of culpability,” offering the example of an allegation that arose three years ago against priests from Granada, Spain, who had allegedly abused minors and supposedly were part of a homosexual ring.
The allegation was first made to the pope by a 23-year old young man, a professor at a prestigious Catholic school. Francis suggested the alleged victim speak with the local bishop, who took it to the civil authorities, resulting in an investigation against the 10 alleged abusers.
The priests, Francis said, “suffered the hatred, the insults of the entire town. They couldn’t leave their homes.”
Yet earlier this year, civil authorities declared the allegations to be unfounded, with the accuser sentenced to pay legal fees.
“[You, journalists] have to accompany, say things, but always under the legal presumption of innocence and not of guilt,” the pope said.
The pontiff also called on parents to speak up on behalf of their own children.
“Many times, it’s the parents who cover up the abuses of a priest. So many times. You see it in the sentences. They don’t believe. Or, they convince themselves that it’s not true,” he said, and the victims are left alone.
Francis then told the story of a woman he welcomed once in the Vatican: “I welcome a [survivor] or two a week,” he said, citing a woman who suffered “this plague of silence” for 40 years because her parents didn’t believe her when she said she’d been abused when she was eight.
“Speak up. It’s important,” the pope insisted.
On a bishop accountability panel
Francis was asked about repeated requests made by Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, for the Vatican to institute a tribunal to judge bishops who cover up cases of abuse.
Francis said he has “high regard” for Collins, but that she’s a “bit fixated” on the question creating a tribunal.
He said that the fact that there isn’t a single tribunal in the Vatican doesn’t mean bishops aren’t being judged. On the contrary, he said, since there are cultural differences in every situation, instead of having a one-size-fits all solution, ad-hoc tribunals are set up to try each case.