Pope Francis can’t seem to work up the outrage about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis that the scandal requires.
In the latest example, the pontiff accepted the resignation of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was complicit in a coverup of many cases of sexual abuse when he was a bishop in Pittsburgh. In addition, Wuerl plainly knew about the predatory practices of his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, before they become public. In both cases, his responses were pathetic.
But instead of making Wuerl an example of the kind of penance that the coverup requires, Francis left Wuerl in place for the time being. Even worse, he praised Wuerl for the “nobility” the cardinal showed in the face of criticism.
In doing so, Francis is handing more ammunition to the anti-LGBTQ right within the Church. In the words of Catholic scholar Joseph Shaw, Francis has proven he is “not the Pope to clean out the stables.”
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While the Vatican dilly-dallies over the sex abuse scandal and resorts to half-measures if any, the ultra-conservative movement in the Church is ready to make heads roll.
As long as they are gay heads.
The Catholic right keeps blaming gay priests for the sex abuse scandal and more generally for the corrupt state of the Vatican. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord,” Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote to parishioners.
Morlino and other conservatives want to use the sex abuse scandal to purge the Church of gay priests. They are doing so under the cloak of taking the kind of drastic action demanded by lay people who are fed up with the Church’s wishy-washy actions. A recent poll of American Catholics found only three in ten approve of the pope’s handling of the crisis.
The far-right is happy to fill that leadership vacuum. While researchers who have studied clergy sex abuse say there is no correlation between sexual orientation and sexual abuse, that isn’t stopping conservatives. They see anything LGBTQ related as proof of the devil’s handiwork.
Gay priests are at the top of the list. Theoretically, being gay is no bar to the priesthood, as long as the priest remains celibate.
But to conservatives, gayness itself is a sin and disqualifies someone from becoming a member of the clergy. Conservative Catholic sites like ChurchMilitant and Lifesite hammer home the issue over and over again. The notorious letter released by a former Vatican official this summer all but blamed the Church’s woes on a gay Mafia.
But it’s not just gay priests. It’s anything gay at all. Ministries to LGBTQ Catholics need to be “rooted out,” in the words of one lay person. The antipathy to anything LGBTQ was underscored by the Illinois priest who burned a rainbow flag as an “exorcism.”
The longer game that conservatives are playing is to seize power again. They long for the days when John Paul II and Benedict ruled the Vatican with an iron-clad conservative doctrine. By contrast, Francis’ modest forays into tolerance are anathema, even though he has been forceful in his condemnation of gay adoption and marriage equality.
How long the Church can stand the stress between the two factions is anyone’s guess. But right now Francis has ceded the field to the vociferous opponents of LGBTQ people.