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The Pope’s Letter: what’s new?

The Letter to the People of God issued some days ago by Pope Francis in response to the latest developments in the unfolding sex abuse scandal crippling the Catholic Church in America is a remarkable document in many ways. Not surprisingly, it is also controversial. Some have hailed it as a turning point in the public pronouncements by the Church on this issue while others – including some victims – have dismissed it as more of the same.

The language and purpose of the Letter needs to be understood in the context of Pope Francis’s attempted reform of the Church. From the very beginning, Francis has tried to break the culture of ‘clericalism’, meaning attempts to maintain or increase the power of the religious hierarchy and to protect it from any accountability. This struggle has played out in multiple fora, such as in the Church’s finances, and in attempts to bring to justice high-ranking prelates who ignored, protected or perpetrated abuse.

This culture, and the resultant power struggles within the Vatican, was one of the drivers that led to Pope Benedict’s resignation. Pope Francis has regularly publicly admonished his top Curia officials, much to their anger and dismay, about the “cancer” of cliques and plots within the Vatican “that leads to a self-referential attitude” and the hoarding of money and power. Francis once compared the difficulties of reforming the Church to cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush.  

The Pope’s Letter breaks new ground because it identifies the cancer of clericalism as a root cause for the Church’s structural sclerosis in taking swift and effective action on reported sex abuse. It states categorically that: “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to clericalism.” It links sexual abuse to abuse of conscience and abuse of power.

It therefore embraces but goes beyond criminal accountability, policies of zero tolerance, and protocols for response, reparation and prevention. It is intended as a call for believers to recognise the underlying causes, and to repentance and inner conversion that will necessarily lead to a transformation of the structures that allowed the sin to flourish in the first place.

The Letter is also important in what it does not say. In contrast to conservative Catholic commentaries, gay-bashing and calls for pulling up the drawbridge on contemporary permissive society are conspicuously absent.

Some have criticised the Letter for not coming up with concrete new proposals. A partial answer to this criticism is to compare it to the public pronouncements by US bishops, which are much more focused on concrete deliverables. In this sense, the Letter respects the prerogative of the bishops and other religious leaders to take appropriate actions while making it crystal clear what the general expectations and guidelines are.

However, this is not enough. It is true that with the procedures that the US Catholic Church has already in place there were hardly any new reports of abuse in the 21st century. But these procedures did not address the liability of high-ranking US prelates, which is only now starting to be uncovered. Francis has been unwilling, or has been hampered, in setting up a centralised system for the prosecution of accused high-level prelates. This has led to the resignation of key lay collaborators, including former abuse victims.

Nor does the Pope’s Letter address the murkiness of Church structures in other countries with respect to sex abuse cover-ups. Chile, which recently witnessed the offer of resignation en masse by all its bishops after the investigation of our Archbishop Scicluna, is but the first of what is likely to be a steeper calvary for the Catholic Church in the years to come. Many are comparing this to the agonies of the Reformation in the 15th century, which tore the Church asunder – and led to its rebirth.  

Up to now, the response of the Maltese Archdiocese to Francis’s Letter has been underwhelming. Bishop Grech’s call for abuse crimes to be reported falls significantly short of the scope of Pope Francis’ Letter. How do the Maltese and Gozitan dioceses intend to address the cancer of clericalism? How do they intend to lead the faithful in a profound examination of the structures of the Church that may be hiding historical abuse and other crimes?

The cancer of clericalism and its propensity to hide abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, or indeed to Christian churches. And as we have seen in the #MeToo Movement, the link between abuse of power and sexual abuse transcends religious institutions. We are living an important moment that, if handled well, could lead to greater transparency for crimes and greater respect for the powerless by the powerful, which are key to eradicating sexual abuse.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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