As a Roman Catholic, I’m supposed to be encouraged by the anguished letter Pope Francis issued this week. The one in which he condemns the monstrous and never-ending “atrocities” of sexual abuse of children by priests – and their equally monstrous and never-ending cover-up by bishops.
But I’m not hopeful.
That’s because aside from being a Catholic I’m also a Latin Americanist – and I know how badly Francis, the first Latin American pope, failed Latin America in this crisis. That's why Latin Americans, particularly South Americans, seem to understand that this criminal tragedy won’t be solved by a papal crackdown on the priesthood. It can only really be addressed by a papal crack-up of that priesthood.
That means turning the Catholic clergy from a celibate, all-male cabal – one that considers its own protection more important than our childrens’ – into a more empathetic society of service by allowing priests to marry and women to be priests.
Many in Latin America have given up on that ever happening. So they’re voting with their feet, especially in the wake of priest abuse scandals like the one Chile is suffering through – and which Francis failed to confront until recently, after he and the Catholic Church had already hemorrhaged their moral credibility in that country.
Chileans are all too familiar with the abuse horrors Americans are struggling to process this month. Namely, the Pennsylvania grand jury report that nauseatingly details how more than 300 Catholic priests defiled more than 1,000 children, and how bishops shielded the pedophile clerics. In Chile, too, hundreds of similar cases have been reported but usually ignored by bishops.
Even the Bishop of Rome looked the other way. For years Francis stuck by his appointment of Bishop Juan Barros, even though his own sex abuse advisory commission showed him ample evidence Barros had protected a serial pedophile priest.
This year Francis finally woke up and – in a gosh-do-you-think? moment that was astonishingly late even for the Vatican – decried a “culture of abuse” in the Chilean church and accepted the resignations of Barros and two other Chilean bishops. (All of Chile’s bishops had offered to resign.)
So did the Pope see the light – or just the numbers?
Earlier this year, the Chile-based firm Latinobarómetro released a survey that showed the percentage of Latin Americans who call themselves Catholic has plunged from 67 percent to 59 percent during the five years Francis has been Pope. Only 36 percent of Chileans say they still trust the Church.
Because he's Latin American, from Argentina, Francis was expected to halt Latin America’s declining Catholic membership. And one of the likeliest explanations for why he hasn’t is that, until now, he’s been so AWOL on the abuse issue.
Chilean Catholics – once considered among the faith’s more conservative cohorts – now want to see the priesthood overhauled as well. The Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., finds two-thirds of them believe the church should let priests marry and women be ordained. A majority of Catholics in neighboring Brazil and Argentina, which have South America’s two largest Catholic populations, agree.
Why? A number of Chilean Catholics I’ve spoken with in recent years point to the decades-long (and probably centuries-long) clerical abuse scandals.
Not because they think married priests and women priests will prevent pedophilia. But because they’ve concluded the priesthood’s celibate and all-male prerequisites – neither of which have any solid theological basis, by the way – have created the arrogant Catholic clericalism that Francis himself is now denouncing.
Clericalism is the belief among many if not most Catholic priests and bishops that they’re a society set above laypeople. Meaning, a divinely privileged caste who are more deserving of a pass – even when their own rape altar boys.
Reformists insist if the priesthood removed that bogus aura of exclusivity and superiority – and especially if it added the more child-protective impulse of women to the mix – you’ll start to see an institution that sides with abuse victims instead of protecting the abusers.
One ray of hope I do see is that Francis, to shore up a growing shortage of priests, recently suggested allowing married men to be ordained in Brazil. That pilot program would take place, not coincidentally, in Latin America.