VATICAN CITY (HPD) — Pope Francis has shed light on the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against a Nobel Peace Prize-winning Catholic bishop and East Timorese independence hero, suggesting that in fact, the Vatican allowed him to take early retirement instead of being prosecuted or punished.
Francis made the revelation in a wide-ranging interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, in which he also denied having a role in deciding the case of a famous Jesuit artist whose apparent preferential treatment cast doubt on the Vatican’s commitment to crack down on abuses. sex in her bosom.
The supreme pontiff acknowledged that the Catholic Church still has a long way to go in dealing with the problem, that more transparency is needed and that Church leaders need to speak out more about abuses against “vulnerable adults.”
Francis recalled that he himself had a steep learning curve about abuse by priests, admitting that his “conversion” moment came during a trip to Chile in 2018, when he himself discredited the victims of the most notorious predatory priest. from the country. Several journalists, including from the HPD, questioned Francis about his comments during the flight back to the Vatican.
“I could not believe it. You were the one who told me on the plane: ‘No, that’s not the way to proceed, father.’ You were,” Francisco recalled.
Making a gesture indicating that his head had exploded, the Pope continued: “The bomb exploded on me, when I saw the corruption of many bishops in this.”
“There you witnessed that I myself had to wake up to cases that were all covered up, right?” he added.
Most recently, the pope said he has been dealing with cases of “vulnerable adults” who were victims of sexual abuse and who are considered minors under the Vatican’s legal code in internal proceedings. In 2019, the Vatican issued a broader definition for people it considered “vulnerable” that went beyond the previous description of simply someone who “habitually lacks the use of reason.”
Francis used that expanded definition in his comments to the HPD, and even went further: He said there are a number of situations in which an adult can be considered vulnerable.
“One can be vulnerable because they are sick, they can be vulnerable due to mental disabilities, they can be vulnerable due to dependency,” he said.
“Sometimes seduction occurs. A personality that seduces, that manages consciences and this creates a relationship of vulnerability, and thus you remain imprisoned, ”he said, grabbing one of his wrists as if he were handcuffed.
Francis addressed two cases that drew attention last year, including one involving a leader of the East Timorese independence movement, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo.
A Dutch magazine, De Groene Amsterdammer, published in September that two people accused Belo of sexually abusing them as children in the 1990s. The magazine said there were other victims who had not come forward publicly.
After the publication, the Vatican acknowledged that it had secretly sanctioned the priest and Nobel Prize winner in 2020, after the complaints that reached Rome a year earlier. The sanctions consisted of restricting his movements and ministry, as well as prohibiting him from having contact with minors or visiting East Timor.
However, the Vatican did not provide information at the time on whether Belo’s superiors knew in advance of any claims against him. Nor did he provide explanations as to why Saint John Paul II allowed Belo to step down two decades earlier in 2002.
Belo has never responded to the allegations, and the Portuguese branch of his Salesian order, which is responsible for him, said it was unaware of the allegations when they first surfaced.
The suspicion arose that Belo, like others before him, had been allowed to quietly retire rather than face any reckoning, given the damage he would have caused to the Church’s reputation.
In Tuesday’s interview, Francisco noted that this was in fact the case, reasoning that this was how these matters were handled in the past.
“This is a very old thing, where this awareness of today did not exist,” said the pope. “And when the case of the bishop of East Timor came out (in September), I said ‘Yes, let it go on the air, what are you going to do, I’m not going to cover it up’, but they were decisions from 25 years ago when there was no conscience”.
Francis also addressed the case of a Jesuit priest, Father Marko Ivan Rupnik.
The Rupnik scandal erupted in December after Italian blogs and websites published allegations by several women that Rupnik sexually, spiritually and psychologically abused them while they lived as consecrated nuns in a Jesuit-affiliated community he helped found in Slovenia in the 1990s.
The accusations rocked the Vatican and the Jesuits, since Rupnik – in the Catholic sphere – was a famous preacher and religious artist whose mosaics decorate chapels and basilicas around the world. He preached at a Vatican retreat in 2020 and regularly leads retreats for priests and nuns. His books continue to be prominently sold in Vatican-area bookstores.
Initially, the Jesuits insisted a single accusation was filed against him in 2021, which the Vatican’s sex abuse office shelved because it was too old to prosecute. Under questioning, the Jesuits admitted that Rupnik was declared excommunicated in 2020 for committing one of the most serious crimes in the Church: using the confessional to absolve someone with whom he had had sexual relations.
The excommunication, however, was withdrawn within a month. That unusually quick turnaround raised questions about whether Rupnik had received preferential treatment, especially when the Vatican decided not to waive the statute of limitations the following year when nine women filed complaints about his alleged abuse in Slovenia.
The pope denied having any role in handling Rupnik’s case, apart from intervening procedurally to keep the second set of charges against the nine women before the same court that heard the first.
Francisco said that his only decision was that everything continue “with the normal court, because if the procedural paths are not divided, everything gets mixed up.”
“So I had nothing to do with this,” he added.
The case raised questions, including why the statute of limitations was not removed, since the Vatican routinely makes such exceptions for abuse cases involving minors.
Francisco acknowledged that he “always” waives the statute of limitations for cases involving minors and “vulnerable adults,” but tends to insist on upholding traditional legal guarantees with cases involving others.
Francisco assured that he “always” renounces the prescription in cases that affect minors and “vulnerable adults”, but he usually insists on maintaining the traditional legal guarantees in cases that affect other people.
Using a Spanish expression that implies a no-holds-barred approach, Francisco said his approach was: “when there are minors, the sleeve is tightly closed. Not wide sleeves, no, no”.
He added that he was shocked by the allegations against Rupnik, someone with whom he allegedly lived closely.
“For me it was a surprise, really. This, a person, an artist of this level, for me was a very big surprise, and a pain, because these things hurt, ”she said.
Francis said he wanted more transparency in how cases are handled, but noted that this is an uphill battle in an institution that for centuries has handled predatory priests behind closed doors.
“It’s what I want, isn’t it? And with transparency comes a very nice thing that is shame. Shame is a grace,” she asserted.