Francis has a lot of buffers.

The Catholic sex abuse scandal has two parts. The first part is the abuse itself. The second part is the institutional efforts to cover it up.

And now we are in the process of slowly, painfully uncovering these decades and centuries of crime.

This process is not part of the scandal.

The uncovering is dreadful. It is agonizing. It is, to use one of Francis’ favored words, messy. It’s always horrifying to witness the uncovering of hidden sin. But the uncovering is not part of the scandal. It is the remedy for the scandal, if there can be a remedy.

And yet Pope Francis, in his homily addressed to bishops today, said:

“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”

This was not plucked out of context by some uncharitable, click-farming rag. It was chosen for publication by the Vatican news service itself. It is the Pope’s message.

In the past week, it seemed that Francis was making an effort to preach in ways that could possibly be construed as general pious reflections on scripture. But in today’s homily, he’s clearly referring directly to the scandal — or, more accurately, to the investigation of the scandal. He does not speak of the need to be more transparent. He does not speak of the need to repent, nor for the need to reform the Church. He does not speak of the horror of sin. He does not speak of the victims. Instead, he casts the bishops themselves as the victims — and some of the nine who advise him are themselves accused of covering up abuse.

Has Pope Francis spoken out about the abuse? Sure. He was more than willing to agree that terrible things had been done, and that some people ought to be very sorry indeed — until those accusations were turned on him. Then we heard that silence was holy, and that those who uncover sin are Satan.

I’ll say it again: Francis sounds like an abuser.

I am praying for bishops, and I am praying for the Pope, as he asked us to do. I am praying especially for those bishops who have been struggling mightily to show their flock they, at least, understand the profound horror we’re uncovering day by day, and that they want it to be uncovered. There are some good bishops. Some have been doing public penance. Some have called for independent reviews of their dioceses’ past, opening up records to the public and to the law. Some have demanded that the magisterium stop acting like this is business as usual and treat this scandal like the emergency it is.

And some have accused him of being part of the cover-up.

Are Viganò’s claims credible? I have no idea. I hope to God he’s wrong. And if Viganò himself is guilty, then he, too, should be investigated and prosecuted. But I keep thinking back to the courtroom scene in The Godfather II, where Willie Chichi tells the investigative committee, “Yeah, the family had a lotta buffers.”  If Viganò was part of the crime family that fed so many children and seminarians into the furnace, then that means he’s the one who knows what went on and how it was hidden. That’s how you get these guys: You get them to turn each other in.

So don’t trust accusers blindly, but listen to them. Look at what they claim, and find out for yourself whether it’s true or not. Open yourself to investigation. Turn over files. Uncover sin. Let the light in. Maybe stop calling investigators “Satan,” I don’t know.

Instead, the family closes ranks, and we hear absurdly tone-deaf assurances that Francis’ nine Cardinal advisors are in “full solidarity” with the Pope. I bloody well bet they are. The man has a lot of buffers.

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Image by Long Thiên via Flicker (Public Domain)

Does Francis know he sounds like an abuser?

Shall I tell you the most charitable, least rash explanation I can muster for Pope Francis’ recent words and behavior? It’s that he’s surrounded himself with yes men who are shielding him from understanding the depth and breadth of institutional sex abuse and its cover-up in the Church.

He’s appointed, or left in office, no one but men who tell him that the world is chock full of false accusations, that the whole scandal thing is overblown, that it’s all in our past — oh, and that right now would be a good time to talk about litter in the ocean. The few who will tell him the truth, like Cardinal O’Malley, are so outnumbered that even their dire warnings can be dismissed as local problems.

That’s the charitable answer, and it’s not great. If he’s in a bubble that protects him from seeing the true state of the Church, it’s a comfortable bubble of his own making. The servant of the servants of God is not supposed to be in a bubble.

But the other explanation is worse. Here it is:

I have a number of friends who have escaped abusive marriages. They tell me that Pope Francis is sounding more and more like the men who abused them. He’s sounding like the men who hid that abuse from the world, who taught their victims to blame themselves, who used spiritual pressure to persuade them and their families that it would actually be wrong, sinful, to defend themselves.

Just listen to him. After responding to a question about Vigano’s very serious accusations, he said point blank, “I will not say a single word on this.” Several of the faithful speculated that he may have had this or that logistical reason for putting off responding to that specific question; fine. But for the rest of the week and more, he kept up an unmistakable theme of calling for silence, equating silence with holiness, and painting himself as a Christlike victim in his silence. Then he says it’s “ugly” to accuse others of sinning.Then he suggests that healing and reconciliation will only come if we take a hard look at our own flaws.

These statements are all true. They all reflect Christian thought. They would be reasonable at any other time in recent history. But coming right in the middle of our ongoing agony, they land as heavily as a fist on a bruise.

To the victims of the Church, and to those who love them, it sounds like he is saying, “Who do you think you are? I don’t have to explain myself to you. You’re the guilty one. You brought this on yourself. If you want to be loved, then know your place. I’m the victim, here, not you. If you know what’s good for you, keep your mouth shut.”

This is how abusers talk. They’re not content with power; they have to keep their victims doubting and blaming themselves constantly, so they don’t become a threat. Whether Francis knows it or not, this is how he sounds.

I know that we hear what gets reported, which isn’t necessarily everything he says. I know that the pope isn’t required to say everything we want him to say. I know that whatever is going on in our own diocese or our own country isn’t the whole of what goes on in the Church. I know that there are eternal truths that need to be told no matter what is going on in the current moment.

But even keeping all these things in mind, it beggars the imagination why the pope keeps talking the way he does. It’s clear he intends to keep on talking, despite his exhortations to be silent. This is what he chooses to say. The very best possible explanation is that his context is pure bubble, and he simply doesn’t realize that much of the Catholic world is transfixed with horror over the sins of the clergy. He simply isn’t aware that, with his words and with his silence, he’s turning his back on so many suffering priests and bishops, including my own, who tell their flock that they have not been abandoned — only to hear their spiritual father override their efforts with a huge, unmistakable message of “NOBODY CARES.”

Maybe he simply doesn’t realize that his cozy little aphorisms are coming off as a passive aggressive threat, as chilling as an abuser who smiles warmly at the world while secretly showing an open blade to the victim who stands faithfully at his side.

I do remember his gentleness, his compassion, his direct and sincere kindness in the past. I don’t believe that was false. You all know I’m not a reflexive Francis-hater. I don’t have any ideological reason to want to bring him down. I have defended him as long as I could, up until the Chile debacle.

And so I am working as hard as I can not to assume the worst, not to believe that this man who promised so much fresh air is really so intent on slamming doors shut before we find out even worse things hidden inside. But he is not making it easy. I am not saying he is an abuser. But he sounds like one.