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Who is Pope Francis: Radical reformer or ineffectual figurehead?

His reform attempts have stalled and the abuse issue threatens to engulf his papacy

At the end of the 11 o'clock Mass in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral last Sunday morning Archbishop Diarmuid Martin reminded the congregation that Pope Francis would be visiting there on Saturday, August 25th at 3.30pm.

As the archbishop said, it will be “the first time a pope has ever visited this cathedral church”.

Pope Francis, he said, was “very anxious to come here to pray with those who are engaged or got recently married or received the sacrament of marriage, and to give some words of encouragement”. He also hoped the pope’s visit “will be a source of joy for us all, even those who have been hurt and wounded by the Church”.

During the  papal visit of 39 years ago, an 11-year-old boy was raped by a Rosminian brother at the Ferrybank industrial school near Clonmel

Among those "hurt and wounded" would be the then 13-year-old boy who was sexually abused by a priest at the parochial house of the Pro-Cathedral during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. It happened after the priest had offered to show the boy the Pro-Cathedral crypts. That boy was a man of 47 when the priest, now laicised, pleaded guilty and was jailed five years ago, in 2013.


During that same papal visit 39 years ago, an 11-year-old boy was raped by a Rosminian brother at the Ferrybank industrial school near Clonmel, Co Tipperary. The boy was kept back from attending with his peers at the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul in Limerick.

It was punishment for his many attempts at escape.

In September 2004, at a hearing of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse's investigation committee and reported on by this correspondent for The Irish Times, the manager at Ferrybank from 1975 to 1991, Fr Patrick Pierce said: "The boy had not been allowed accompany his colleagues to the pope's Mass as punishment for absconding. The brother who raped him had been a prefect at the school and volunteered to stay back with the boy."

It would be a further 20 years before that boy got justice. In 1999 the relevant brother pleaded guilty at the Circuit Criminal Court and was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, with the last three suspended.

On his way to the Pro-Cathedral today Pope Francis will stop briefly on Seán McDermott Street outside Our Lady of Lourdes Church. Anticipation there is as high now as it was in 1979 when Pope John Paul was to stop there too but, as he was behind schedule, did not.

Rather, and to the great disappointment of local people who, despite their many trials never lose their sense of humour, claimed he went through “faster than any joyrider ever did”.

Another local said at the time that such was the disappointment it probably meant Matt Talbot would go back on the drink. The remains of Matt Talbot are inside the church. He was an alcoholic who gave up drink at the age of 29 and devoted the remaining 40 years of his life, before death in 1925, to prayer and fasting in the style of the early Irish monks. He was declared venerable (a step on the road to canonisation) by Pope Paul VI in October 1975.

When Pope John Paul zipped through Seán McDermott Street 39 years ago he also bypassed, as so many did, the Magdalene laundry on nearby Gloucester Street. Up to 100 women were still incarcerated there in 1979. It would remain in operation for a further 17 years, closing in 1996, the last remaining Magdalene laundry in Ireland. Then it was never on Pope John Paul’s schedule anyhow.

So there is much for Pope Francis to ponder and pray on in the immediate area of Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, on his first visit there as pope. But it’s not just the abused and their families he will need to think about on his visit to Dublin today and tomorrow.

As the Archbishop of Dublin said last Sunday, the Church 'we lived through was not a friendly Church. It was almost hostile, authoritarian and autocratic'

As Archbishop Martin said after that Mass last Sunday, when speaking to the media in the Pro-Cathedral portico: "I understand the anger of people. You've got a lot of good practising Catholics, people of all generations, who are very angry. They're beginning now to see that in fact the church that we lived through was not a friendly church. It was almost hostile, authoritarian and autocratic. They're hurt because of that."

Interestingly, he continued that this may have been a factor in the referendum last May which saw the Eighth Amendment removed from the Constitution, thus allowing abortion in Ireland. “A lot of these are the people who would say that the referendum they voted in one way [was] because the church was always telling them what to do,” Archbishop Martin said.

There are, he said “a lot of people in Ireland who would be surprised at me to say that you’ve got good Mass-going middle-aged Catholic men and women who are very angry with the church they’ve come through and feel themselves hurt, not because they were abused in the sexual sense but because they had a church which dominated their lives.”

‘A sinner’

These then are among the people Pope Francis will meet today and tomorrow in Ireland. “A sensitive man,” as Archbishop Martin described him last Sunday. “A sinner,” as he described himself in an interview early in his papacy.

The story is familiar about this Argentinian son of Italian emigrants who abandoned the worldly trappings of his high office as Archbishop of Buenos Aires to live humbly and use public transport. He has continued that lifestyle as a pope who wants “a poor church for the poor”, as he told us media in Rome after his election in March 2013.

So what has he done in the five years since? Outwardly not much seems to have changed in the church. To the frustration of some, it remains Catholic. It has been claimed that in electing him the college of cardinals had two immediate concerns: reform of the Vatican bank and reform of the Roman curia. Both are works in progress, with matters at the bank appearing more advanced so far.

But the curia? Like permanent government everywhere it finds ways of frustrating change it does not like. In civil society it delays until a particular government falls and then it continues as before. In the Catholic Church it delays until the (usually elderly) pope dies.

An example of how this is done in the case of Pope Francis comes from June 2015. Then it was announced with fanfare that the pope had created a new Vatican tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), to deal with bishops who failed to protect children from being sexually abused by priests.

This was presented as unprecedented and as a major success for the Vatican’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors, set up by the pope the previous year. The commission’s task, he said, was “to propose to me the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults, in order that we may do everything possible to ensure that crimes such as those which have occurred are no longer repeated in the church”, he said.

In 2016 Francis published an apostolic letter that provided for the removal of bishops who had been negligent in addressing child protection. Little has happened since

The new tribunal it proposed would be able to hold bishops to account for mishandling or covering up allegations of clerical child sex abuse and would have power to recommend to the pope the removal of errant bishops from office. He said he would be guided in such instances by the decision of those he appointed to the new tribunal.

And everyone cheered. Well, almost everyone. Not at the CDF. There they discovered “legal difficulties”, of course. Under canon law. Bye, bye new tribunal.

The pope tried again. In June 2016 he published the apostolic letter A Loving Mother, which provided for the removal from office of bishops or other church leaders who had been negligent in addressing child protection. Relevant structures were to be put in place, but nothing has happened since.

It would be wrong to conclude that these active frustrations of Pope Francis are representative of his papacy. He has remained refreshingly consistent in his attacks on the institutional clericalism upon which so much resistance to necessary change is rooted.

Collegial atmosphere

More broadly he has completely shifted the mood music in the church away from a rigid hierarchical conformism to a more collegial atmosphere of debate and creative thinking, which allows for complex human situations to be dealt with more compassionately.

An example is his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), the centrepiece document of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin this week, which allows room for the possibility that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. It followed two synods of bishops in which he encouraged real debate and discussion, both of which occurred.

And that is the great change with this papacy: there is debate and discussion even on subjects deemed forbidden under popes Benedict and John Paul.

At a conference in Trinity College last Monday, it was silenced (under Pope Benedict) Redemptorist priest Fr Tony Flannery who probably put it best. He was speaking in TCD's School of Religion at a Wijngaards Institute panel discussion on "topics and the people excluded from the World Meeting of the Families in Dublin".

He said: “I absolutely disagree with those who say Francis has done very little.” The church under this papacy “in some instances has changed radically”. As an example he noted particularly how, previously, “We were not supposed to talk about the ordination of women. Now everyone is.” Things had “changed dramatically,” said Flannery.

Liberal Catholics think Pope Francis is the best thing to happen to the Church since John XXIII. The more traditional wing view him with ever-increasing abhorrence

In his own case he thought it “great Francis sacked Muller” a reference to former CDF prefect Cardinal Ludwig Muller, whose term in office was not renewed by the pope last July.

Cardinal Muller had made life particularly difficult for Fr Flannery, who found it satisfying when the cardinal later "complained proper procedures had not been followed" in his removal from the CDF. In his case Fr Flannery was not even allowed by the CDF to present a defence in his own case.

But while more liberal Catholics think Pope Francis is the best thing to happen to the church since Pope John XXIII, those who make up the more traditional wing of Catholicism view him with ever-increasing abhorrence. They believe he brings confusion where they previously had clarity.

They live in hope that this will be a short papacy.

Clerical abuse

But the lack of effective action in the area of clerical sex abuse, despite the pope’s efforts, frustrates many loyal Catholics. To make matters worse it now affects several of the council of cardinals he personally selected as outsiders to help him reform the curia.

Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, chair of the Commission for Protection of Minors and a member of the council, is now preoccupied with abuse allegations in his major seminary, St John’s in Boston. He may also have questions to answer over what he knew and for how long about the alleged abuse of minors by former Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, now out of public ministry and removed from the college of cardinals last month.

An auxiliary bishop to another member of the council, Honduran cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, resigned last month following allegations that he sexually abused seminarians. Again there are questions over what Cardinal Maradiaga knew of this bishop’s activities and how long. The cardinal is also himself being investigated by the Vatican following allegations of financial impropriety.

Then there is another member of the council, Chilean cardinal Francisco Errázuriz, who is accused by abuse survivors of playing a central role in the cover-up of multiple abuses by child abuser priest Fernando Karadima there.

This was the case which prompted Pope Francis, on a visit to Chile last January, to describe as “calumny” allegations by survivors against Karadima. A subsequent Vatican investigation sustained the allegations and prompted all Chile’s bishops to offer their resignations, five of which Pope Francis accepted. He also abased himself before survivors in regret and invited them to meet him at the Vatican, which they did.

And there is Cardinal George Pell, chosen by Pope Francis to reform the Vatican finances. Currently he is back in Australia where he is the most senior Catholic Church figure worldwide to face trail on sexual abuse charges.

It means that four of the nine-member Council of Cardinals Pope Francis has personally chosen to help him reform the Catholic Church, face serious questions into their handling of clerical child sexual abuse issues.

The abuse issue now threatens to engulf Pope Francis’s remaining years in office.