Pope Francis has made mercy the overriding theme of his papacy but he’s coming under fire for including abusive priests in his vision for a Church that offers forgiveness to all sinners.
It leaves the Pope open to accusations that he is soft on abuse or, as survivors are arguing, he simply “doesn't get” the problem. His critics say that when it comes to crimes against children, its justice rather than mercy that should be the priority.
The perception that Francis is not on top of the abuse problem has been reinforced by a recent story by Nicole Winfield of Associate Press, who reports that Francis has overruled the advice of the Vatican department calling for priest abusers should be defrocked.
Rather than defrocking - or laicising - the priests, the Pope has sentenced them to a lifetime of prayer and penance and removed them from public ministry, which victim groups and some of his advisers believe is too lax a penalty.
The case of Fr Mauro Inzoli, who abused five young boys and who is facing another church trial, is troublesome. In 2014 the Pope overruled a decision from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Inzoli should be laicised and, according to officials inside the congregation, his case isn’t the only one. What is also concerning is that the Pope made his decision to soften sentences after being lobbied by powerful figures. Meanwhile, civil authorities recently investigated Inzoli - he was found guilty last year.
“The Pope has the power to make changes to verdicts but its highly imprudent to do so in abuse cases when the sentence has been handed out,” Professor Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer at the Catholic University of America told The Tablet. “You create the impression, as in the Inzoli case, that if you have powerful friends you can get preferential treatment. That sends the wrong signal, especially to victims."
He adds: “One of the roles of the penal system of the Church is to reform the offender, which in the case of Inzoli hasn’t happened, but it is also there to implement justice and repair any scandal.”
But the big question here is also how the Church should balance both punishment of abusive clergy while safeguarding the safety of children. On the one hand, the laicisation imposes the toughest possible penalty on a priest but it also means the Church no longer has responsibility for that cleric. As a result some countries, including in England and Wales, place an abuser on a restricted ministry which means they are kept out of the way of children.
“You have laicisation as an option, but depending on the case it may be better not to follow this process,” said Dr Kurt Martens. "If you are dealing with an 80-year-old priest do you want to laicise or do you want to keep him under strict control, meaning you take him out of ministry although he remains a priest? Or, in the case of a serial abuser, they may not keep to the prayer and penance conditions. We have to trust the canonical procedures, let them play out fully and respect the mechanisms of that process.”
Back in the 1960s, the founder of a religious order who ran retreat centres for abusive clergy advised Vatican officials that paedophile priests could not be cured and suggested they all be moved to a Caribbean Island in order to stop further abuse. Fr Gerald Fitzgerald even put a downpayment on an island but nothing ever came of it.
History shows that offences by abusive priests occur more than once, almost like a compulsion, and strong procedures are needed to deal with them. Handling cases should not be open to lobbying or bending the ear of a Pope. At the same time, as Jesuit child protection expert Fr Hans Zollner has argued, the need for a central authority in the Church to handle cases like these is necessary.
This puts a big challenge in front of Francis who likes to take a merciful, case-by-case approach to problems - such as giving communion to the divorce and remarried - while also decentralising power away from Rome.
The Pope has called for “zero tolerance” on abuse, has set up the papal safeguarding commission and set in place procedures to hold bishops accountable for covering up abuse cases. But critics are saying he needs to do a lot more and show that he is a Pope who can implement justice - as well as showing mercy.