“The Viganò affair is the tip of an iceberg,” Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican reporter for the blog Il Settimo Cielo, told me. “Most of it is below the surface. It raises serious questions that are causing divisions at the highest levels of the Church.” Those divisions, in his view, have to do with differences over Francis’s approach to management, theology, and homosexuality. That may be the case. But in many ways, the Viganò letter and the Vatican’s response underscore one of the biggest challenges facing the Church’s handling of the sex-abuse crisis: the often yawning divide between the world viewed from the Vatican and the Vatican viewed from the world. It’s hard to imagine that most parishioners are following the Viganò case, but at the same time, have the officials inside Francis’s Vatican begun to understand that the sex-abuse crisis is a true crisis—and that calls for bishop accountability are not comparable to the persecutions of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian?
“I think there’s a general recognition that it’s not just an English-speaking problem, and it never really was,” Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, told me last week in Rome, where he is one of six bishops from the U.S. attending an annual synod of bishops at the Vatican this month. The synod’s theme is “young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.” “I think we’re beyond all that,” Caggiano said. “I think the narrative has broadened now. Now there are calls for transparency. We want to know the full extent of this evil. Which means, for example, even very long-past historical cases.”
In an address before Francis and the synod assembly, Caggiano called on the gathering to address the sex-abuse crisis. “It is both a crime and a sin that has undermined the confidence and trust that young people must have in the Church’s leaders and the Church as an institution, so that they may again trust their priests and bishops to exercise true spiritual fatherhood, serve as adult figures in their lives and as authentic mentors of faith,” he said. The Archdiocese of Bridgeport just appointed a layperson, a former judge who is not Catholic, to review its records and issue a report.
Caggiano was not the only prelate to use the word crime in this context—another major shift since 2010. In an October 5 conference at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, which has set up a master’s program in the protection of minors, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising used the term when he spoke of what he had learned from the report published last month uncovering abuse in Germany. (The issue has come to the fore in Germany, where last month Der Spiegel had a cover story about what it said was Francis’s troubled record on the issue as a bishop and cardinal in his native Argentina.) Marx, who has been nicknamed “the Panzer Cardinal” for his insistence that the Vatican tackle this crisis, was unsparing. “Abuse is a crime. In any civilized society, it is normally obvious how to handle crimes. They must be investigated and dealt with,” he said. Marx spoke about the excuses made in the past by clergy to explain their lack of action. “The epitome of self-deception by those responsible was using theological argumentation as an excuse for doing nothing about abuse,” he said. “You know the terms: reconciliation, mercy, benevolence, and clemency to override such considerations as repentance, atonement, and legal consequences, and negate any such actions.”