From the moment he christened himself Pope Francis, the charismatic Argentine Jorge Bergoglio reinvigorated an office that under his predecessors had often been accused of hypocrisy, greed, and the championing of conservative dogma. Over the course of his first year as pope, Francis has spoken out against homophobia, attacked corruption within the Vatican, pushed for a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria, and even amassed millions of followers on Twitter.
But mostly lost amid the fanfare over Bergoglio’s one-year anniversary as pontiff yesterday was a new report that raises troubling questions about his complicity in the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for more than a decade.
Earlier this week, BishopAccountability.org released a report entitled “Pope Francis and Clergy Sexual Abuse in Argentina.” The report focuses on Bergoglio’s stint as archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013, and includes a database with links to public documents and media reports about 42 priests in Argentina previously accused of sexual misconduct. Specifically, the report focuses on five cases of sexual abuse by priests in which it alleges that "Bergoglio knowingly or unwittingly slowed victims in their fight to expose and prosecute their assailants.”
The principal researcher behind the report is Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org. In an interview with VICE News, Doyle described herself as a devout Catholic who was inside the Vatican last year during the papal conclave that elected Bergoglio pope. Doyle joined BishopAccountability.org in 2003 amid revelations of sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, and eventually made her work with the non-profit her full-time job. Prior to focusing on Argentina, the organization published a similar database of priests accused of molestation in America.
“We try to aggregate all public information about the sexual abuse crisis,” Doyle said. “When we suddenly had a pope from Argentina, the first or second question that occurred to us was: How did he manage the sex abuse crisis when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires? He was there 15 years. He was the most powerful Catholic bishop in Argentina.”
Although Francis has been outspoken on a litany of other issues, he has remained surprisingly silent on the topic of clergy sexual abuse. In his 2010 book, On Heaven and Earth, the future pope claimed his priests never misbehaved during his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
“In my diocese it never happened to me,” he wrote. “But a bishop called me once by phone to ask me what to do in a situation like this and I told him to take away the priest’s faculties, not to permit him to exercise his priestly ministry again, and to initiate a canonical trial.”
The Holy See’s press office did not respond to an email inquiry from VICE News about the report, and could not be reached by phone yesterday afternoon. But in an interview last Wednesday with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Francis defended the Vatican’s record on sexual abuse.
"The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave extremely deep wounds," he said. "The Church has done so much on this path. Perhaps more than anyone. The statistics on the phenomenon of the violence against children are shocking, but they also show clearly that the great majority of abuses take place in the family environment and around it. The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And, the Church is the only one to be attacked."
That rhetoric doesn’t sit well with Doyle, who argues that the Church has been anything but transparent and responsible when it comes to abusive priests.
“He basically denied and minimized the crisis,” she said. “He has to be held accountable. Every powerful institution needs to answer to the rule of secular law. He may be a man of great goodness, but we have to be as objective and responsible in assessing him as we would someone who is not as charming and not as likable.”
The pope’s charisma and reformist agenda are not easily reconciled with his reticence to address documented sexual abuse within the Church. His remarkable story — a former nightclub bouncer rising from a Buenos Aires barrioto become Holy Father — has provided the ideal alternative media narrative to the dark reports of predatory priests and their child victims, and the Church's decades-long institutional protection of those abusers.
To be clear, the BishopAccountability.org report does not directly link Bergoglio to sexual abuse in Argentina. Instead, it details cases where it appears as though Bergoglio either failed to take strong, decisive action against accused priests, or helped to temporarily shield them from prosecution or incarceration.
Most notably, Bergoglio is accused of supporting Father Julio César Grassi, a priest convicted of molesting a boy in 2009. According to the report, which cites Argentine court documents and previous media coverage of the case, Bergoglio “commissioned a secret study to persuade Supreme Court judges of Grassi's innocence,” and helped him avoid prison for nearly four years after he was convicted.
“It's a pretty impressive group of data they were able to hook up,” says Patrick Wall, co-author of Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes, about sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy. Wall knows what he's talking about — before leaving the priesthood, he was a Benedictine Monk who was tasked with silencing abuse victims. “I'm honestly kind of amazed there's that much publicly available. You look at it and you start to see the way these guys were moved around. You can see, probably, why Francis has been pretty much silent on the issue of childhood sexual abuse by priests. If he opens his mouth, he's going to have to answer questions about these guys.”
Despite leveling very serious allegations against the Pope — essentially accusing him of covering up for child molesters — Doyle can’t help but admire some of his more appealing qualities. She uses words like “kind” and “warm” to describe him, and says she respects his leadership on other issues.
“It's wonderful to have a church leader who gives us hope,” Doyle says. “But it's not okay to allow him to take a pass on clergy sex abuse. It’s not okay for him to try to change the subject.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton