Why Pope Francis cannot win on sexual abuse

By Dr. Jeff Mirus, Oct 09, 2015

Pope Francis has done more than any of his predecessors to seek to punish those guilty of clerical sexual abuse. Even so, when he defends a cleric who has been accused, he is in a no-win situation. That’s because huge numbers of people form their positions on individual cases of sexual abuse without any significant knowledge of the facts.

Clearly it is foolish to reflexively deny claims of clerical sexual abuse by victims. Too many have been proved true. But it is just as foolish to reflexively believe such claims. We live in an age when people revel in victim status, confessing to all kinds of things on radio talk shows, making money from the media for “telling their story”, and often receiving significant cash settlements from the Church—not infrequently without going to trial.

It often takes far too long a time to recognize that someone has been abused, and to repair as much of the damage as possible. But those who are falsely accused are also thrust into a purgatory that may never end.

Pope Francis has deliberately created a sexual abuse commission which consists partly of victims and long-time victim-advocates. That’s probably a good thing. But it is very hard to find victims and long-time advocates who do not instinctively believe that every allegation against a cleric is true. This means that even the Pope cannot conclude that a bishop or a priest is innocent in a particular case without taking flak from his own commission.

The situation in the Diocese of Osorno in Chile is a case in point. Francis appointed Juan Barros as bishop there even though Fr. Barros had been accused of knowing about sexual abuse and doing nothing about it. Since then the Pope has defended the appointment because he believes the bishop to be innocent. He has even asserted that the Catholic protesters in that diocese have been “dumb” in taking their cues from “leftists” who hate the Church.

Obviously, many people disagree with that assessment. One of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has lamented the Pope’s position, and protesters on the scene are now disgusted with what they see as a lack of concern for victims by the very man who claims mercy as the centerpiece of his pontificate.

As I said, the Pope is in a no-win situation. In some cases, perhaps in this case, nobody outside the situation is completely sure of the truth, so any position might later be proven unjust. I do not know if Francis is right to support Bishop Juan Barros, and neither do you. Nor do the members of the abuse commission; nor do the protesters in Chile. Meanwhile, the Pope has as strong an obligation to defend unjustly accused clerics as to ensure the punishment of those who are guilty.

The popular side in the world at the present time is the side of all who claim to be victims. If they really are victims, they deserve support; but either way, they are fodder for the secularist anti-Catholic narrative. But what if justice does not lie on the popular side? Obviously every bishop, including the Pope, should be on the side of justice. Sadly, in the court of public opinion, justice is only seldom on the winning side.

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