An Acid Test For Francis

Pope Francis Attends Celebration Of The Lord's Passion in the Vatican Basilica

The UN Report on the Vatican’s role as a global conspiracy to enable, abet and cover up crimes against humanity is a vital reminder of just how hideous the Catholic Church has been in violating the souls and bodies of so many innocents. Sometimes, the sheer scale of the abuse renders one mute. But it shouldn’t. Nor should the emergence of a truly Christian – as opposed to Christianist – Pope blind us to the taint that still corrupts Catholicism.

The scale of the criminality is important to keep in mind:

Last month, the Vatican acknowledged that close to 400 priests left the priesthood in 2011 and 2012 because of accusations that they had sexually abused children.

The number of victims is in the tens of thousands. And their agony never ends. Now it should be said that the Church has made some serious changes to prevent child abuse in the future, and Benedict deserves some credit for that. But the institution itself has never held itself fully accountable. And the crimes it presided over were legion and horrifying. Only today, for example, we read of the apology issued by the Legion of Christ – a neo-fascist, theocon cult – for the grotesque abuses of its founder, protected for years by Pope John Paul II:

The Legionaries of Christ, which former members said was run like a secretive cult, accused the founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, who died in 2008, of “reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior” as head of the order from its founding in 1941 until Pope Benedict XVI removed him in 2006.

The Dish’s long coverage of this scandal – well before the hierarchy began finally to take it seriously – can be found here. And when you absorb just how evil this cult was, just how depraved its leader was, and the psychic and spiritual toll it took on so many human beings, you come to one conclusion: there is no way this organization should still exist. The Vatican should shut it down. Period. Instead we have the former cronies and favorites of Maciel still calling the shots:

The order’s newly elected general director, the Rev. Eduardo Robles Gil, has a long history with the group himself. According to its website, he helped establish the Legion in Brazil, and in 2011 he was named to a commission created to work with the victims of Father Maciel. The Rev. John Stegnicki, a former Legion priest now working in the archdiocese of Brasília, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that the outcome of the election was “disappointing” but predictable, given that the priests voting were by and large Maciel confidants or their protégés. “Who else could they choose from?” he said. “All of them are entrenched in Legion-think.”

So why does the church tolerate the continuation of such an organization? And yet it does. Similarly, why on earth is the Pope who presided over the sex abuse crisis – and protected Maciel to his death – even faintly considered for sainthood, far sooner than has ever been the case before? Sanctifying a Pope who presided over such crimes against humanity is an obscenity.

And why do we have to struggle to discover that more than 400 priests have been defrocked because of child rape in the last couple of years alone? Why aren’t their dismissals announced proudly by the Vatican? And why, for Pete’s sake, does the Vatican not enforce a simple rule: all accusations of child abuse should be referred immediately to secular law enforcement?

Francis has an opportunity here – perhaps the only opportunity the church will ever get – to turn a new page, to insist on complete transparency, to be fully accountable to law enforcement, and to atone and recant for the legacy of the past. There needs to be a purge not just of abusing priests but of every church official who played any part in the cover-up. Why, for example, has Cardinal Bernard Law not been defrocked and publicly shamed – instead of enjoying a cushy sinecure in Rome?

Francis has made some steps toward a reckoning with the past. But not nearly enough so far. He’s been adept at symbols, gestures, simple acts that speak more loudly than words. But no symbol and no gesture would do more to restore some measure of integrity to the institution than following most of the UN Report’s recommendations. The truth is that the Catholic Church has committed a crime against humanity. Until every person implicated in that crime is removed, defrocked and disgraced, the entire moral credibility of the church will remain irreparably damaged.