The Catholic Church has long been plagued by sickening scandals involving priests abusing children. And there is reportedly another scandal coming — this one of the pope's own making.
Two people with direct ties to the Vatican tell me that Pope Francis, following the advice of his clubby group of allies in the curia, is pressing to undo the reforms that were instituted by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI in handling the cases of abuser priests. Francis is pushing ahead with this plan even though the curial officials and cardinals who favor it have already brought more scandal to his papacy by urging him toward lenient treatment of abusers.
In 2001, the Vatican instituted a massive reform in how it handled the cases of priests who abused children. The power to deal with these cases was taken away from the Congregation of the Clergy and the Roman Rota (the Vatican's Court), and placed in the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Subsequently, the volume and speed with which the Catholic Church defrocked abuser priests went up. This was Pope Benedict's legacy of trying to confront "the filth" in the Church.
Recently, Pope Francis had the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, request an opinion from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, led by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, regarding the possibility of transferring competence to deal with abuser priests from the CDF back to Clergy and the Rota. Coccopalmerio's office responded with a positive answer.
And although it was not mentioned in media reports, Pope Francis also discussed this "reform of the reform" on child abuse when he met with his special advisory group, the Council of Cardinals, in mid-December, an official with direct knowledge of the meeting told me. The press office of the Vatican did not respond to requests for confirmation or comment.
Pope Francis has always talked tough on child abuse. In a letter to Catholic bishops on Dec. 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, he decried child abuse. "Persons responsible for the protection of those children destroyed their dignity. We regret this deeply and we beg forgiveness. We join in the pain of the victims and weep for this sin. The sin of what happened, the sin of failing to help, the sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power."
Francis was elected in part to reform a dysfunctional curia. So shifting responsibilities is not troubling in itself. And it is hard not to credit the sincerity of his jeremiads against child abusers. But the CDF's performance on this issue is miles better than the situation before 2001.
So why revert?
Perhaps because the CDF has taken a tough, rules-based approach to the issue of child abuse, which clashes with the more personal autocratic style of this pope. Or perhaps because reforming the reform would reward his allies, and humiliate an antagonist.
Rumors of this reform have been circulating in Rome for months. And not happily. Pope Francis and his cardinal allies have been known to interfere with CDF's judgments on abuse cases. This intervention has become so endemic to the system that cases of priestly abuse in Rome are now known to have two sets of distinctions. The first is guilty or innocent. The second is "with cardinal friends" or "without cardinal friends."
And indeed, Pope Francis is apparently pressing ahead with his reversion of abuse practices even though the cardinals who are favorable to this reform of reform have already brought him trouble because of their friends.
Consider the case of Fr. Mauro Inzoli. Inzoli lived in a flamboyant fashion and had such a taste for flashy cars that he earned the nickname "Don Mercedes." He was also accused of molesting children. He allegedly abused minors in the confessional. He even went so far as to teach children that sexual contact with him was legitimated by scripture and their faith. When his case reached CDF, he was found guilty. And in 2012, under the papacy of Pope Benedict, Inzoli was defrocked.
But Don Mercedes was "with cardinal friends," we have learned. Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, now dean of the Roman Rota, both intervened on behalf of Inzoli, and Pope Francis returned him to the priestly state in 2014, inviting him to a "a life of humility and prayer." These strictures seem not to have troubled Inzoli too much. In January 2015, Don Mercedes participated in a conference on the family in Lombardy.
This summer, civil authorities finished their own trial of Inzoli, convicting him of eight offenses. Another 15 lay beyond the statute of limitations. The Italian press hammered the Vatican, specifically the CDF, for not sharing the information they had found in their canonical trial with civil authorities. Of course, the pope himself could have allowed the CDF to share this information with civil authorities if he so desired.
It's astonishing that after giving in to requests for intervention by Coccopalmerio and Pinto — requests which were unjust and humiliating — the pope would proceed to give authority over some child abuse cases to Pinto. But perhaps that isn't the first thing on his mind. Doing so would reward one of Pope Francis' friends and humiliate someone he sees as an antagonist.
The veteran church reporter John Allen recently noted in Crux that Pope Francis doesn't always take the direct approach when trying to kneecap his critics within the church, or the obstacles to his reform in the Vatican. Sometimes, he goes around them. Allen wrote that "it means formally keeping people in place while entrusting the real responsibility to somebody else and thus rendering the original official, if not quite irrelevant, certainly less consequential."
That has been Francis' approach with CDF, led by the German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, in the past. When Pope Francis wanted to change the process for declaring marriages null, he essentially skipped over Müller, a constant critic of the pope's views on marriage and the sacraments. Instead the pope went to Cardinal Coccopalmerio. The loyalty of Monsignor Pinto is unquestioned. It was Pinto who lashed out at four cardinals who publicly questioned the orthodoxy of the pope's recent document, Amoris Laetitia. The four cardinals criticized the document for encouraging changes to Catholic sacramental practice they held to be impossible given Catholic doctrine. Pinto reminded them that the pope could remove their status as cardinals. Meanwhile Cardinal Müller seemed to be giving aid and comfort to these cardinals, saying that the sacramental practice of giving communion to people in adulterous relationships could not be endorsed.
In any case, on abuse, the justice dealt out by Müller's CDF seems to be too harsh for the pope and his allies. And so, the pope hopes to render the CDF irrelevant in these cases.
Nothing has been decided with any finality, and it is possible that saner heads will prevail and remind Pope Francis which cardinals and offices are really serving his best interests and doing justice in the name of his authority. Or at least remind him that while the press may cheer him for undoing John Paul II's teaching on communion for the divorced, they may not cheer him for lightening the penalties on child molesters who happen to have friends in his inner circle.