Even by Vatican standards the timing is spectacularly inept. The six Oscar nominations for the movie Spotlight have refocused the attention of the world on the issue of paedophile priests inside the Catholic church – almost certainly the biggest scandal to plague the institution in the past century. And yet, with disdain or disregard for world opinion, just two weeks before the Oscars the most outspoken member of the pope’s commission to combat sex abuse has been sacked.
Pope Francis is busy elsewhere. After Friday’s historic meeting with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church – the first for almost 1,000 years – he has been about his usual business: visiting prisoners, migrants, indigenous people and the families of victims of the violence of drug traffickers, this time in Mexico.
But in his absence a hidden civil war inside the Vatican continues. On one side are reformers who want public accountability for abuser priests and the bishops who have overseen them. On the other is the recidivist Roman old guard whose instinct for cover-up continues.
Two years ago Francis set up the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. It is made up of clerics, theologians, psychiatrists, therapists and – most significantly – two survivors of priestly sex abuse. The most vocal member was Peter Saunders, who founded the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, one of the world’s most forthright anti-abuse campaigners.
His sacking last weekend is a signal that, behind the scenes, the Catholic church is reverting to its old bad habits.
At its first meeting in May 2014, the commission’s president, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston – the man who cleaned up the mess exposed by Spotlight – startled its members by revealing that establishing the group had run into more opposition inside the Vatican than any other papal reforms, apart from the overhaul of Vatican finances.
Over the following two years the anti-abuse commission has seen attempt after attempt to undermine it. Key Vatican departments vied to take control of the body. Its decision to set up offices outside the Vatican was countermanded. Bureaucrats tried to subvert its attempt to write its own statutes. It was starved of finance.
Its press releases were doctored and diluted – as happened with the Vatican announcement on Saunders, which was presented as a fait accompli despite Saunders’ insistence he had merely been asked to consider whether his outspoken public pronouncements were compatible with his role as a papal adviser. “It was not a vote of no confidence,” another commission member, Marie Collins has since revealed.
As the story broke so did the news that the Catholic church had been running training courses for new bishops where they were told it was “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse to the police. The commission, it transpires, has been allowed no role in devising the training programme even though another member, the British psychiatrist Baroness Sheila Hollins, insisted on Friday that its brief was “to assist local churches in all parts of the world” to develop initiatives to safeguard children and vulnerable adults.
Church spin doctors rushed to the internet to suggest that removing Saunders, with his constant public lobbying on behalf of victims, would free the commission to get on with important policy work. That is the opposite of the truth.
Certainly Saunders has been an uncomfortable irritant for many in the Vatican. On the eve of this month’s meeting he told one newspaper that its previous session, in October, had been a “non-event”. He said publicly what a number of commissioners have told me privately, that the body – which meets only twice a year – is moving too slowly. “Glacial” is the word used by several members.
That is not all. Saunders has spoken out publicly on a range of issues. Most intemperate was his attack on the pope’s finance chief, Cardinal George Pell, after claims that Pell failed to take action to protect children when he was a bishop in Australia. Saunders called Pell callous and cruel and said he’d shown “an almost sociopathic” disregard for victims.
That said, Saunders is the grit in the oyster of the papal commission. Without him it is less likely to produce the pearls that will redeem the Catholic church in the eyes of the ordinary faithful and clean out what Pope Benedict XVI called the “filth” inside the church.
If that is to be achieved, justice does not just need to be done but must be seen to be done. The indignation, advocacy and campaigning of victims and survivors such as Saunders are essential to that. If the papal commission cannot accommodate that, its brief needs revising.
Sacking Saunders sends out the bad old message that the Catholic church is a haven of silence and complicity. It was revealing that after Saunders’ sacking, Marie Collins said she had confidence in the other commission members, but: “I do not have the same confidence in those whose task it is to work with us within the Vatican and implement our proposals when approved by the pope.”
She doubtless has in mind those in the Vatican who insist child abuse is a thing of the past. It is not. Only last weekend the commission was told of two priests who recently alerted their bishop to an abuser priest – and were then were told by the bishop to stay silent.
The additional problem is that Francis appears ambivalent on the issue of clerical sex abuse. It took 10 months of private badgering by O’Malley before he agreed to set up the commission. Several of those close to Francis have told me that though he has a detestation of abuse, he is also wary of false accusations being made against priests.
That may explain why it took him over two years to accept the resignation of the US bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City after his 2012 criminal conviction for failing to report a paedophile priest to the police. Commission members called for Finn’s removal but it was almost three years after Finn’s criminal conviction before Francis authorised action.
Then, even more controversially, Francis promoted a bishop in Chile, Juan Barros, who was accused by abuse victims of covering up for a paedophile priest.
All of that sits uneasily with the policy of zero tolerance that Francis called for in 2014 – after his commissioners had repeatedly pressed him to endorse such an approach.
Rome may come to regret its judgment that Saunders is more of a nuisance inside the tent shouting out than he will be outside shouting in. Since his removal he has condemned the “Vatican system” as “essentially corrupt and unwilling to do the right thing”. The decision to close ranks to exclude Saunders will look to many like a return to the Church’s instincts to put the protection of the institution above the care of individuals.
The irony is that Pope Francis has sought to send out the opposite message in every other respect. The first pope from the southern hemisphere will doubtless continue his ministry to the marginalised in Mexico and elsewhere. But his failure to act effectively on sex abuse may seriously mar his otherwise radical papacy.
Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.