Exclusive Excerpt from ‘The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy’

By Henry Sire | April 17, 2018 | 2:36pm EDT
"The Dictator Pope" (Screenshot)

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book “The Dictator Pope: The Inside Story of the Francis Papacy.”

What Happened to “Zero Tolerance” for Clerical Sexual Offenders?

The phenomenon of widespread homosexuality among clergy and bishops had been public knowledge since at least 2001, when the Boston Globe began a series of exposés on the clergy sex abuse scandals. The John Jay Report, an investigation commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published in 2004, found that more than 80 percent of the victims of clergy sexual abuse had been adolescent males.  Reports from dioceses around the world—including national bishops’ conferences in Australia, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, the Philippines, India, and most of Europe—found similar results.

The John Jay Report covered the period from 1950 to 2002 and found the complaints had peaked at a period coinciding with the vogue for ignoring or re-writing seminary admission guidelines to allow homosexuals to study and be ordained as priests—the 1960s to the 1980s—a period that can be likened to the Catholic Church’s own internal Sexual Revolution. The Vatican itself was not immune to this global wave of sexual permissiveness. The broad parameters of the problem became clear in 2012 with the “Vatileaks” scandal that revealed an extensive and well-funded homosexual network operating out of the Curia, with Curial officials approving the use of Vatican-owned properties in Rome as homosexual brothels aimed at priestly clientele.

Despite attempts by the secular press to pin the blame retroactively on Pope Benedict, the records show that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had undertaken significant and effective reforms, described in the United States as a “zero tolerance policy.” Sexual abuse of minors, at least in 2001, was still a subject capable of arousing outrage among the public, and the demands for reform were loud. But even then, the homosexual lobby, had made enormous strides in image management. The secular media collaborated, pinning the blame on sinister and creepy “clergy paedophiles,” as distinguished from fresh-scrubbed and morally acceptable homosexual priests, while ignoring that the homosexual lobby favoured lowering the legal age of consent to fourteen, the age preferred by homosexual clergy abusers.  These larger cultural shifts, and the reality inside the Vatican, perhaps explain why Pope Benedict’s reforms—which included a ban on men with homosexual tendencies from the priesthood —have availed so little, even before they were subverted by his successor.

According to data presented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the UN Human Rights Commission in January 2014, Benedict XVI had defrocked or suspended more than eight hundred priests for past sexual abuse between 2009 and 2012. These included the notorious Fr. Marcial Maciel, the influential founder of the Legionaries of Christ who under the previous pope had enjoyed immunity from investigation. In 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the world’s bishops’ conferences, asking them to adopt stringent guidelines on how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. The guidelines required bishops to make every effort to protect minors, assist victims, collaborate with civil authorities, and forward all new cases to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith so that it could take action. In a March 2010 pastoral letter to Ireland’s Catholics, Benedict criticized the lax application of the Church’s laws and said the bishops’ failures had “seriously undermined” their “credibility and effectiveness.” He noted a “misguided tendency” against applying canonical punishments that he said was due to “misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council.”

The guidelines were merely reiterations of previous reforms Ratzinger had insisted upon as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In April 2001, Pope John Paul II had issued norms  that required bishops to report all accusations of clerical “delicta graviora” (graver offences) against the sixth Commandment to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a competence removed from the Congregation for Clergy and the Roman Rota. Three weeks later, Ratzinger had sent a letter to every bishop in the Catholic world reminding them of the norms and insisting on their implementation.


Pope Benedict’s most decisive action was taken in the long-neglected case of Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the immensely wealthy priestly order, the Legionaries of Christ. Complaints and accusations had piled up against Maciel for decades, but the public was hardly prepared for the horrifying reality—the decades-long deception Maciel had perpetrated—that finally emerged. During the pontificate of John Paul II, the Legionaries and Maciel enjoyed the favor of the pope and the support of his powerful secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who had reportedly received enormous sums from the group. In 2004, close to the end of John Paul’s pontificate, Ratzinger had ordered the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigation on Maciel reopened and was ultimately convinced there was substance to the claims of abuse, after his office interviewed more than one hundred former seminarians and priests. Maciel stepped down as head of the Legion only a few days before the death of John Paul II, at whose funeral Cardinal Ratzinger famously decried the “filth” of clerical sex abuse that had grown in the Church.

The investigation continued after Ratzinger was elected pope and in May 2006 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered Maciel to “relinquish any form of public ministry” and to retire to “a reserved life of penitence and prayer.” Maciel died in 2008. In the end it came out that the Legion founder had led a double life for decades; addicted to morphine, sexually abusing boys and young men, keeping three mistresses in two countries and fathering six children by them, all sheltered by the order’s cult-like devotion to the founder; supported by money donated to the Legion for works of religion.

With the succession of Benedict XVI, even those not inclined to support the “conservative” side in the Church perceived a profound and welcome shift in addressing the scandals. Michael Sean Winters, a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, praised Benedict for focusing on those who had covered for the perpetrators. He called the previous emphasis on the abusers “an utterly ineffectual approach.” Abuse of minors, he said, “was horrific” but “what galled, what really gave rise to a sense of betrayal, was that the bishops did not respond to this abuse with the appropriate horror.”

“Benedict’s willingness to hold bishops accountable is what is needed to mend the church,” Winters said. “Pope Benedict gets it. And he has given notice that bishops who don’t get it will be replaced.” This was confirmed a few days before Benedict’s resignation took effect by a senior member of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendia, who said, “This Pope has removed two or three bishops per month throughout the world.... There have been two or three instances in which they said no, and so the Pope simply removed them.”

Despite verbal avowals from Pope Francis that he too is a champion against clerical abuse, this reform of accountability appears to have evaporated with Benedict’s resignation. In fact, for those paying attention, Francis started signaling the new direction immediately by choosing to honor one of the most notorious of the enabling bishops—namely his electoral ally Cardinal Danneels, who appeared with the new pope on the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica on the night of the election.

Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of Bishop Accountability, has remarked: “No other pope has spoken as passionately about the evil of child sex abuse as Francis. No other pope has invoked ‘zero tolerance’ as often.”  Yet in the name of his favourite theme, “mercy,” Francis decisively broke with the Ratzinger/Benedict program of reform, reducing the penalty for priest abusers to “a lifetime of prayer” and restrictions on celebrating Mass. In February 2017 it was revealed that Francis had “quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of paedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders.”

A particularly notorious case was Francis’ decision to overrule the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s penalties against the Italian priest Mauro Inzoli, who was found guilty in 2012 by an ecclesiastical court of abusing boys as young as twelve and suspended a divinis, which barred him from performing priestly duties. Inzoli had especially angered Italians for the brazenness of his behaviour – he abused boys in the confessional and convinced them that his molestation was approved by God – and his love of an expensive lifestyle, earning him the nickname “Don Mercedes” in the press.

But in 2014, following an appeal by Inzoli’s friends in the Curia, Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Monsignor Vito Pinto, Francis reduced the priest’s penalty to a “lifetime of prayer,” and a promise to stay away from children, giving him permission to celebrate Mass privately. Francis also ordered him to undergo five years of psychotherapy, a medicalized approach favoured by bishops at the height of the sex abuse crisis years and demonstrated to have little effect.

Inzoli’s two curial friends were to become significant figures in later altercations between Francis and his critics within the College of Cardinals over Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s controversial Apostolic Exhortation on pastoral matters related to marriage and family life. Cardinal Coccopalmerio, a former auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Martini, is president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto now dean of the Roman Rota.  Both these prelates have been key figures in supporting Francis against the critics of Amoris Laetitia, who happen to include Cardinal Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One journalist has commented: “Pope Francis, following the advice of his clubby group of allies in the curia, is pressing to undo the reforms that were instituted by his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI in handling cases of abuser priests.”

This leniency, however, backfired, and after complaints from Inzoli’s home town of Cremona, police reopened the case against him. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to four years, nine months in prison for “more than a hundred episodes” of molesting five boys, aged 12 to 16. Fifteen other offences were beyond the statute of limitations. After Inzoli’s conviction in the civil courts, the Vatican belatedly initiated a new canonical trial.

Inzoli’s case is not an isolated one. Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield wrote that “two canon lawyers and a church official” told her the pope’s emphasis on “mercy” had created an environment in which “several” priests under canonical sanctions imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had appealed successfully to Francis for clemency through powerful curial connections. The unnamed official noted that such appeals had rarely been successful with Benedict XVI.

It was rumored that Francis intended to revert competence for sex abuse cases from Cardinal Müller at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Rota and Congregation for Clergy. Instead, Francis merely changed personnel. He summarily removed two Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith staffers in charge of handling sex abuse cases (declining to give any reasons to Cardinal Müller) and then dismissed Müller himself as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in July 2017.

According to the Associated Press’s Nicole Winfield, Francis also overruled a request by his own sex abuse commission to create a tribunal of bishops to review sex abuse cases. Perhaps worse, the commission’s guidelines for dioceses on handling abuse claims were never sent to the bishops’ conferences or even produced on the Vatican’s websites.

Francis’s new approach of “mercy” and treating sex abuse as a psychological-medical problem, was criticized by a victim-survivor on the sex-abuse advisory commission, Marie Collins, who later resigned, citing a Vatican culture of bureaucratic obstruction and inaction. “All who abuse have made a conscious decision to do so,” Collins told the Associated Press. “Even those who are paedophiles, experts will tell you, are still responsible for their actions. They can resist their inclinations.”

Questions remain about Bergoglio’s knowledge and involvement in the case of decades of sexual abuse of students by priests at the Antonio Provolo Institute, a school for deaf children in Argentina and Verona, Italy. In 2009, twenty-four former students of the institute came forward with horrifying stories of sexual abuse. Pope Benedict’s Vatican ordered an investigation, and the diocese of Verona officially apologized to the Italian victims, but the Vatican has taken no action since, even though the students sent a letter to Francis in 2014, asking him for an investigative commission. The only response the group ever received from Rome was a note from Archbishop Angelo Becciu, who said the request for a commission had been passed on to the Italian bishops’ conference. In 2016, two of the priests involved, Nicola Corradi and Horacio Corbacho, were arrested in Argentina. The Provolo Association representing the victims told the Associated Press after the arrests that the Vatican had still done nothing and raised questions about Francis himself. “We have to ask ourselves: the Pope, who was for many years the primate of the Argentine church, did he know nothing about clerical abuse in his country?” A canon lawyer for the group, Carlos Lombardi, told the press, “Either he lives outside of reality or this is enormously cynical…it’s a mockery.”

The pope has outraged even his most faithful admirers in yet another sexual abuse case, this one involving Bishop Juan Barros of Chile. On January 23, 2018, the National Catholic Reporter, hitherto a bastion of Francis loyalism, carried an editorial proclaiming: “Pope Francis’s defense of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros Madrid is only the latest in a number of statements he has made in his nearly five-year papacy that have hurt survivors, and the whole body of the church.”  The article went on: “Within the space of four days, Pope Francis twice slandered abuse survivors. On the papal flight from Peru Jan. 21, he again called testimony against Chilean bishop Juan Barros Madrid ‘calumny.’ Despite at least three survivors’ public accounts to the contrary, he also again said he had not seen evidence of Barros’ involvement in a cover-up to protect notorious abuser Fr. Fernando Karadima. These remarks are at least shameful. At the most, they suggest that Francis now could be complicit in the cover-up….The pope’s statements on zero tolerance have been strong, but again and again he has refused to deal decisively with those who provided cover for the abusers….In a bluntly critical statement, the likes of which we have struggled to find parallel in recent church history, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the pope’s slander against survivors has caused them ‘great pain.’…When it comes to confronting the clericalism that is the foundation for abuse scandal, the pope’s stony countenance is part of the problem.”

When Pope Francis’s friends start making remarks like that, a wheel has come off the Francis bandwagon. Matters got worse, when it was revealed in February 2018 that despite Francis’s insistence that he had seen no evidence of victims coming forward to accuse Bishop Juan Barros of a cover-up, apparently Cardinal Seán O’Malley had in fact handed him an eight-page letter by a victim alleging just that—that Bishop Juan Barros had not only covered up sexual abuse but was an eyewitness to it. A copy of a letter was acquired by the Associated Press.

To say the least, Pope Francis has not held the “zero tolerance” line of Pope Benedict when it comes to clerical sexual abuse and has been far more lenient, or irresponsible, in dealing with this ongoing moral scandal within the Church.

“The Dictator Pope” is the fruit of historian Henry Sire’s four-year residence in Rome from 2013 to 2017.  During that time, he became personally acquainted with many figures in the Vatican, including Cardinals and Curial officials, together with journalists specializing in Vatican affairs.


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