Opinion

Could Pope Francis reconcile Catholics to church hierarchy?

Millions of Catholics eagerly await Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States this fall. Like no other Christian leader in recent years, this humble, empathetic man has moved the world with simple words and deeds of virtue.

Yet whatever pleasant surprises and breakthroughs may be in store during the trip — which includes a stop in Cuba, speeches before Congress and the U.N., and an outdoor Mass that will likely draw millions in Philadelphia — joy will be tainted by an unmistakable pall. The Catholic Church in America is still weighted by the sex abuse scandal, in the image it projects to those outside the faith, by the financial costs of the settlements, and in how it has divided those who remain in the pews.

I would have liked Francis to witness the conversation I did between two women this week in Kansas City. They spoke in hushed tones, alternating between anguish and tenderness, before parting with an embrace. The women had never met before.

A news conference had brought them together, and they discovered that they had an unholy bond. They believe that, decades ago, they were abused by the same priest, who is now dead. It was long ago, before they married and had children, before their hair began to gray, but the wounds were raw.

“He bragged to me about other girls that he had been hurting,” one woman told the other after the TV cameras and reporters had packed up and cleared the room.

“That was you.”

The press conference was part of the hubbub over the removal of Robert W. Finn, bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, a prelate remarkable only in his unfitness to be the shepherd of his flock. Nearly three years ago, he became the most senior U.S. Roman Catholic prelate to be convicted of criminal charges related to the child sexual abuse scandal. Finn was found guilty of a misdemeanor, having failed to report suspected child abuse in a case that eventually sent a priest (now defrocked) to jail for 50 years on charges of producing child pornography.

Finn’s removal was actually a resignation, accepted without comment by Francis in Rome, which rankled many.

Still, for both of the women, along with the other abuse victims, the resignation was a relief even if it was too long in coming.

One of the women had been part of a 2008 nonmonetary settlement with the Kansas City diocese that attempted to set in place significant changes in how allegations were to be handled going forward. The other was a part of a nearly $10 million settlement in 2014 to resolve civil cases against the diocese.

One of the women had been 17 years old, going through the process of converting to Catholicism. The priest attacked her in a confessional. The other woman was sexually abused as a young girl at parochial school. She remembers the priest taking her out of class and leading her to a janitor’s closet, sitting her on his lap. The smell of cleaning materials, so present in that cramped, dark space, still makes her stomach churn.

The pain has had decades to go away, but it hasn’t. Treatment for depression, extended leaves from work and a small share of the financial settlement from the diocese haven’t undone the harm. The fact that other children also suffered abuse, so many years later, deepens the pain for both women.

“This is just the beginning of what needs to happen,” one of the women commented about Finn’s removal. “I hope this is a new era.”

Time will provide the reply to her hope.

Francis is the supreme pontiff who asked, “Who am I to judge?” He is the prince of the church who washes the feet of convicts. He has invoked the faith to condemn the bombing of Syria. He has helped usher the reopening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He has taken a brave moral stand by naming as genocide the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey a century ago. He has met with Jewish leaders to condemn the growing anti-Semitism in Europe and decried Islamist attacks on Christians in Africa and in the Middle East.

Impressive, inspiring stuff. But to reconcile a disillusioned Catholic laity to an often uncaring, unresponsive and morally reprobate hierarchy — now, that would be doing something.

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