On his return flight to Rome after his hectic trip to the Holy Land, Pope Francis held a highly noteworthy press conference with reporters, including the surprise announcement that he would meet with a group of sex abuse victims and celebrate Mass for them in the near future, perhaps in early June, and that he is open to retiring from the papacy.
As the Catholic and secular media learned last July on the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome after his attendance at World Youth Day, the pope’s journey home is potentially as newsworthy as the trip itself. The flight from Tel Aviv to Rome proved no exception.
As he did on the Brazil flight, Pope Francis made himself available to reporters on board the papal plane for an impromptu press conference. Attention focused on the sex abuse scandal, upcoming papal journeys and a possible new wrinkle to the challenges facing Vatican finances.
Meeting with victims
In responding to questions about the Church’s handling of the sex abuse scandal, Pope Francis reiterated his firm commitment to a “zero tolerance” policy for abuse, but he also revealed two surprising developments. The first was his planned meeting with victims, and the second was that at least four bishops currently are under Vatican scrutiny with regard to the scandal.
As he has in the past, Francis used strong language for abusers. He called the abuse of children by priests “an ugly crime,” a “very grave” problem and a betrayal of the Body of Christ. Instead of bringing children to holiness, such a priest, Pope Francis declared, abuses them and gives them problems that last a lifetime.
He compared the actions of abuser priests to the celebration of a black mass, the Satanic ritual involving the desecration of the Eucharist. In December last year, the Holy Father established an unprecedented Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors with the task of advising him on the Church’s efforts to protect children and offer pastoral care for victims of abuse. He named its first eight members in March, including four women. One of them, the Irish lay woman Marie Collins, was herself a victim of clergy sexual abuse as a girl in the 1960s.
As an unmistakable sign of outreach to victims, Pope Francis stated that he would meet soon with six to eight sex abuse victims from various countries, including Germany, England and Ireland, and would celebrate a private Mass for them in the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hotel where he resides. This will be Pope Francis’ first encounter with a group of victims, although he met with Collins in May.
In a second surprise, the pope announced that three unnamed bishops currently are being investigated by the Vatican for their activities related to the scandal and another has been found guilty and will be facing punishment. The pope did not elaborate as to whether they are under investigation for personal actions of abuse or if they had failed to handle cases properly.
Critics of the Church’s handling of the scandal often have focused on the issue of possible penalties for bishops who fail to hold abusers accountable, and Pope Francis seems determined to make bishops accountable. He said to reporters that in Argentina there is a euphemism for the special treatment of some officials, calling them “daddy’s boys.” The pope said sternly, “On this problem, there can’t be any daddy’s boys,” meaning that no one should be safe from punishment when it comes to clergy sexual abuse.
Another topic of scandal discussed was the reported mishandling of some 15 million euro (approximately $20.5 million) belonging to the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly called the Vatican Bank. The Vatican has tried to cope with several financial scandals over past years and has worked to implement global requirements for financial transparency and fraud prevention. The current problem, however, has greater potential ramifications because of concerns that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State from 2006 to 2013, might be involved.
Pope Francis has moved quickly since his election to launch wide-ranging reforms in the area of Vatican finances, including the creation of a commission to improve oversight of the Vatican Bank and to fight against fraud. When asked what the biggest challenge so far has been to implementing reform, he replied that “the first challenge is me,” but he was remarkably candid about the inquiry into the money, saying, “It is something under study; it is not clear. Perhaps it is the truth, but at this moment it’s not definitive. It is under study, to be fair.” He also stressed the continuing importance of effective reforms, noting, “while there will always be sinners, it’s important to try not to increase their number.”
Francis also announced that he will visit the Philippines and Sri Lanka next January. With an apostolic voyage already planned for Korea in August, the pontiff is making very manifest that promoting the Catholic Faith in Asia is a major priority for his pontificate.
He is also concerned for the plight of Christians in Asia and around the world, with a focus on religious liberty. “There are martyrs, today, Christian martyrs,” he lamented. “And in some places you cannot carry the crucifix or cannot have a Bible. You cannot teach the Catechism to children, today! And I think — and I believe I am not mistaken — that at this time there are more martyrs than in the early days of the Church.”
As for his own possible retirement, Francis seems quite willing to consider it under the right circumstances, pointing to Pope Emeritus Benedict as a role model both for him and all future popes. “We need to look at him as an institution: he opened a door, the door of emeritus popes,” Francis declared. “Only God knows if there will be others, but the door is open.” He added on a personal note that if the day comes, “I will do what the Lord tells me to do. ... But I believe that Benedict XVI was not a unique case.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.