The church’s mea culpa

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The Jubilee of 2000 gave rise to a church that asked its flock to forgive it for its mistakes. With Pope Francis the sins have become “terrible” and global.

Leading the way was Pope Karol Wojtyla, Saint John Paul II to some. At the height of the Jubilee year called to celebrate the beginning of the third Christian millennium, he called for a special day (12 March 2000) on which to ask forgiveness on behalf of the church. The religious wars, the schisms, the discrimination and harm caused to women, the colonialist wars, the persecution of the Jews and social divisions. A long series of injustices that Christians had played a role in perpetrating or failed to oppose with sufficient force. For the first time in the history of Catholicism, a Pope publically asked for forgiveness for the sins of the church. Prior to Wojtyla, no one had ever done that.

Then came Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. During the Way of the Cross Easter commemoration held shortly before his election on 19 April 2005, at the ninth station of the cross, the then Dean of the College of Cardinals made a remarkable indictment of the sins of the church. “How much filth there is in the church, and even among those who, in the Priesthood, ought to belong entirely to Him! How much pride, how much self-complacency!”. Among the assumptions made about the reasons behind Pope Ratzinger’s resignation, announced on 11 February 2013 and becoming effective on 28 February, many referred to his sense of impotence in the face of this “filth” that not even from the pulpit of St Peter’s could he manage to eradicate.

Finally Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church on 13 March 2013. We should not forget his predecessors because they too admitted that sin resides and prospers within the church, but they did so in ways and with a substance that differed greatly from the approach of Pope Francis. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, their apologies to the world were linked to exceptional, unrepeatable historic events:the Day of Pardon called by Wojtyla, unprecedented in two millennia of the church’s history, and Ratzinger’sresignation, which was even more sensational and shocking for everyone.

The second reason is that from Wojtyla to Bergoglio passing through Ratzinger, there has been an undisputable shift ever closer to contemporary news. Wojtyla admitted sins committed in the past and while keeping them at a certain distance he put them in perspective. Ratzinger spoke about a “filth” that was already more contemporary but that seemed to have been accumulated over time. Bergoglio, on the other hand, recognised how often the church’s sins seemed immersed in a painful daily routine and the ubiquity of guilt.

Just browse the news and you can see. The Pope asked for forgiveness in April 2014 “for the evil committed by some priests” and in July of the same year he did so again in private with an audience of some of the victims. In August 2017 he spoke of “terrible sin” and asked forgiveness. He apologised in the name of the Church and asked forgiveness in 2018, in January, inApril and in August, using terms such as “monstrosity” and “terrible sins”. And he did so on a global stage, in Italy, Chile, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Honduras and the United States as well as within the church itself, which by its vocation and itsreach, is universal.

In these cases he was referring to the scandal of the numerous episodes of paedophilia and sexual abuse in which the predators were men of the church, cases that had occurred in a multitude of countries. The consequences of this were numerous. Many chose to focus on the damage to the credibility of the institution in the eyes of its faithful. A case in point is the so-called “Holland question”,a country in which the drastic decline in the number of practisingCatholics led to the sale or demolition of hundreds of churches, with only 258 remaining, and only a dozen or so of these still used for mass or other functions. The question being: to what extent have the sins of the hierarchy led to the collapse?

It is hard to imagine that this did not have an impact, given also that the Catholic church is growing in Africa and Asia but facing an abyss – both in terms of the decline in numbers entering the priesthood anddiminishing congregations – in Europe and North America, where the number of these scandals was far greater. It is precisely at this juncture that another very thorny aspect of the problem emerges. On 14 August of 2018, the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania (USA) published a 1,356-page report that lifted the veil on the thousands of cases of children abused by priests over the years. The report was described as “a book of horrors” by Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago and a “moral catastrophe” by Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo, President of the American Episcopal Conference.

This alonecould beviewed as a disaster, however, there’s more. In the three weeks following its publication, state prosecutors in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico and Nebraska announced the launch of similar enquiries and began their investigations withrequests to the diocese in question to hand over local documents and registers. It is expected, therefore, that there will be a new series of maxi-compensation pay-outs to the victims along the lines of those eventually awardedfollowing long and tortuous trials: in 2004 the diocese of Orange County, California (100 million dollars), the archdiocese of Boston in Massachusetts in 2007 (93 million dollars, which was raised from the sale of 60 church properties) and in the same year the archdiocese of Los Angeles in California (63 million dollars).

In Australia, moreover, caught up in the scandal was Cardinal George Pell, who was put on trial for sexually abusing children.The 76-year-old was one of the key figures in the process of reforming the Roman Curia, an initiative launched by Pope Francis. The Pope had, in fact, appointed Pell the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, the Vatican’s Minister of Finance. In what came to be referred to as the “Pell case”, even the Australian government intervened, asking forgiveness from the victims and condemning the behaviour of the church.


The result of all this is not only the loss of the church’smoral authority among the its followers but a more general intersection between the spiritual and the worldly spheres, between heaven and earth,between moral credibility and political loyalty that can short circuit an institution such as the Catholic church, thevulnerability ofwhich derives precisely from its being made of a religious office (the Papacy) together with a state (the Holy See).

From this point of view the sin of paedophilia is the most insidious of all. Nevertheless, we must not forget the efforts that Benedict XVI made and Francesco is still making to bring the Vatican finances under control: formany decades the Vatican had been suspectedof being at the centre of international intrigue and perverse financial speculation. Pope Ratzinger at the end of 2010 launched the first radical reform of the Institute for Works of Religion (the IOR – basically the Vatican bank), issuinga motu proprioPapal edict that it would have to comply with all of the traceability and transparency regulations outlined in the monetary convention signed the year before with the European Union. This decision arrived, however, after numerous shady events and after the Italian court had called for the confiscation of 23 million euros due to repeated violations of the laws against money laundering.

Pope Francis, who even entertained the possibility of abolishing the IOR, has continued the reforms. However, judging by the frequent interventions andthe continuous series of resignations or sackings of directors and high-level staff, rather than having a clear end in sight, the reforms represent a daily battle. A little bit like the fight against paedophilia.

The church is experiencing a bitter reality. Sinners can be eliminated (perhaps), but sin cannot because it is inherent to human nature. Secular states call sin “crime” and are equipped with laws with which to fight it. Will the Catholic state manage to do the same?

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