Significant, if somewhat muted, coverage continues of Vatican debates surrounding the sexual-assault charges against Cardinal George Pell -- one of the current pope's closest advisors.
If you look at this as a religion-beat case study, there are several issues to consider, building on my earlier post: "Bad day for Pope Francis: Sexual-assault charges against Cardinal Pell fuel media firestorm."
First, Pope Francis is a media superstar because of his reputation among journalists as a progressive on sexuality issues. Yes, it does help if one quotes only selected parts of what this pope says on issues of sin, confession, repentance and mercy.
Then there is the problem of how much to say about Pell's alleged victims. In practice, this boils down to two questions: (1) What should American journalists report about the controversial books (especially “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell,” by Louise Milligan) emerging that reference the Pell accusations? Also, (2) should journalists continue to describe this as a story about pedophilia, alone, avoiding evidence that these crimes -- statistically speaking -- usually involve ephebophilia (illegal sex with under-aged boys and girls, in their teens)?
Why keep mentioning this rather technical point? I do so because I have interviewed experts on this topic (on the Catholic left and right) who stress that, in the past, many bishops were convinced it was more important to remove pedophiles from altars (because they rarely responded to therapy), while they held out hope for recovery among the far greater number of priests who had sex with teens.
Is there really a difference? Here is how one very blunt expert described the situation to me:
A 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears is sick and disturbed and being tempted to commit a crime. But this man is not sick, disturbed and a criminal in precisely the same way as a 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears.
The same would be true of a gay adult priest (click here for background). Discussing this fact leads to heated debates on both the Catholic left and right.
You can see some of these issues lurking in follow-up stories about the Pell case. Here is the top of a major New York Times report: "Vatican Sex Abuse Scandal Reveals Blind Spot for Francis." Here is the overture:
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis came to power promising not only to create a more inclusive church and to clean up an ossified Vatican bureaucracy, but also to remove the stain of child sex abuse.
A global pedophilia scandal plagued his two immediate predecessors. With Francis’s election in 2013, many expected progress. Francis talked about powerful committees to safeguard children, tribunals to try bishops and a “zero tolerance” policy for offending priests.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Francis had granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, now the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, and one the pope had brought into his inner circle even as a cloud of allegations swirled over the cardinal in Australia.
In other words, some expected the progressive Francis to be more progressive on this issue than his conservative predecessors. As it turned out, Pope Benedict XVI may have been more aggressive in fighting this evil than Francis (while there are those who note that he did little to punish bishops who hid guilty priests).
You can see the media realities of this in the Times text. Can you feel the pain here?
It was unusual and jarring, bad news for a pontificate that has mostly bathed in global adoration and done wonders to improve the public image of the church.
But for all of Francis’s good works, good will and popularity, disappointed critics saw Cardinal Pell’s removal as only the latest evidence that a pope who has focused the world’s attention on issues from climate change to peace on earth has his own blind spot when it comes to sex abuse in his ranks.
“What happened today clearly demonstrates that the revolution of Francis in the church, when it comes to the issue of sex abuse, is in name only, and not in deeds,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian journalist and the author of “Lust,” a book published this year about sex abuse in the Vatican that begins with a chapter about Cardinal Pell.
He said that despite the pope’s talk, “the fight against pedophilia is not a priority for Francis.”
So the issue is limited to pedophilia? A condition defined as:
1. sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object; specifically : a psychological disorder in which an adult has sexual fantasies about or engages in sexual acts with a prepubescent child
Francis has not been silent about sexual abuse among Catholic clergy, of course. The issue here is whether his deeds match his words.
To its credit, the Times team does raise this issue in blunt terms.
The pope later issued an edict, titled “As a Loving Mother,” saying that the Vatican already had all the offices necessary to investigate and discipline negligent bishops, and would do so. But no discipline or sanctions have ever been announced.
“Pope Francis has a lot of explaining to do,” said the Rev. James E. Connell, a priest in Milwaukee, a canon lawyer, and a founding member of Catholic Whistleblowers, a group of priests, nuns and others who advocate for victims. “He sets up these things and then kills them and doesn’t follow through. And these are all matters of justice.” ...
Pope Francis’ focus on mercy as a central teaching may also be a blind spot, Father Connell said. “We hear a lot from the pope about mercy, and fine, we hope the Lord is merciful. But at the same time, justice must be rendered,” he said.
Once again, I was left asking a basic question: What information could journalists provide, at this time, about the alleged victims of Cardinal Pell? After all, some have spoken publicly, in terms of allegations in the past.
You can see some of these says issues lurking in a key passage in this Religion News Service follow-up report:
There is no doubt there has been some change under Francis. He has spoken out many times against clerical sexual abuse and late last year he urged bishops around the world to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy. ...
This month, the pope defrocked an Italian priest, Mauro Inzoli, who was convicted of child sex crimes by an Italian court a year ago.
But Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, had initially defrocked Inzoli in 2012 after he was first accused of abusing minors. Francis reversed that decision in 2014, ordering the priest to stay away from children before finally coming to the conclusion that the priest could no longer continue in his duties.
"Minors"? "Children"? Stay tuned. At some point, the victims will be quoted.