The ball is now in your court, Francis!

The Archbishop confesses to the Cardinal: “I have broken all my vows,” to which his superior answers: “We are priests, but we were something else before we became priests, which we cannot escape. We are men, with the weaknesses and failings of men.” 

This interesting conversation occurs in a 20th century bestseller, where a priest fights a long battle against his love for a woman, only to lose it in the end. The story of Archbishop Ralph de Bricassart is a powerful chronicle of the repercussions of enforced celibacy among Roman Catholic priests. This conversation between the priest and his superior acquires meaning in the appalling incidence of child abuse in Catholic churches all over the world. 

During a recent papal visit to Ireland, Pope Francis spoke of the disgusting “clerical child abuse” which church authorities had failed to address. Without mincing words in this largely catholic country, he warned that the church was in a state of crisis, with the very same people entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the welfare and safety of its children shamelessly exploiting them. 

But, the pope blaming bishops and other ‘superiors’ of the church for not taking action against such erring priests in their parishes has rebounded on the Vatican itself with the million-dollar question: has that highest seat of ultimate authority dealt adequately with crimes of child abuse in its own backyard by punishing the guilty, no matter how high the offices they held?

Several cases of such sordid crimes have started to emerge, implicating those in high offices. A former Vatican envoy in the US has openly questioned Pope Francis as to how prominent members of the Vatican were merely asked to resign in the wake of child abuse crimes and let off with a lenient punishment, unlike those holding lesser positions in other churches? 

According to a BBC report, “alleged cover-ups continue to dog the Catholic church” with abused victims claiming that the Vatican has not done nearly enough to right its wrongs. The pope’s silence on this issue spells further trouble for his own office. At the same time, the Vatican has expressed “shame and sorrow” over the decades of sexual abuse in the churches of America where over 3,000 children are reported to have been sexually abused by 300 “predator priests” in one state alone; and what is more shocking, where the churches in question did a systematic cover-up.   

However, child molestation and other forms of abuse are not confined to churches in America alone. It is a worldwide occurrence that needs more than papal censure or punishment. 

Pope Francis is a forward-looking liberal, not confined to archaic ideas of morality. He is also an activist among popes and priests who has let some fresh air into the stifling atmosphere of the Vatican. He should be the first to explore the psychological dimensions of sexual behaviour among Catholic priests. 

Is it possible that the three cardinal virtues of “obedience, poverty and chastity” thrust on those priests may be the root cause of all these evils? And does the church itself — even the Vatican for that matter — practice these virtues? At least, poverty is certainly not visible in the Holy See. 

Francis is again the first pope to frown on the ostentation of the Vatican, with its gilded chairs and ornate tapestry. He discarded the luxury sedan used by his predecessors and moved out of the luxurious papal palace into modest apartments. A true Jesuit, he made it clear that a pope does not have to live in luxury or move in splendour. 

So, it is possible that he may initiate a movement to change archaic practices in the Roman Catholic church as well. It is also possible that he may do away with enforced celibacy among catholic priests that may be the root cause for such sexual aberrations. We do not hear of such mass child abuse in other religious orders of Christianity where the priests lead more normal lives.  

These are matters to be dealt with by qualified professionals. We, the public, can only ask questions as to why such aberrations occur in churches. Are they common in other religious places, too? Do these horrendous crimes take place in Buddhist monasteries or Hindu mutts practicing asceticism? Are gurudwaras and mosques safe for children? It would be good to bring these issues into the public domain instead of brushing them under the carpet. 

To that extent, Pope Francis has opened a Pandora’s box. It may spill out ugly secrets. Nevertheless, it will also drag the seamy side of organised religion into the open. That itself is the first step towards putting an end to unholy activities in holy places. 

  • Pope Francis