ARCHBISHOP Georg Gänswein, secretary to the last pope, once compared the impact of the sexual-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to that of 9/11 on the secular world. In the most recent development a study commissioned by the German church, which leaked, found that more than 1,500 clergymen there had for decades been abusing minors. On September 12th Pope Francis responded at last, calling the leaders of every Catholic hierarchy in the world to a conference in Rome to discuss the continuing—indeed, deepening—crisis. The heads of all the world’s Catholic bishops’ conferences—more than a hundred prelates—will be expected to attend, from February 21st to 24th.
The announcement follows a terrible summer for the church. In July the pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, who is accused of taking advantage of his position over many years to make sexual advances to seminarians. The following month a grand jury in Pennsylvania published an investigation stretching back seven decades that chronicled in often horrific detail the abuses of more than 300 priests in the state which, it said, their superiors had ignored and covered up. In August, the former papal nuncio, or ambassador, in America, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, alleged that Francis himself had covered up for former Cardinal McCarrick. He called on the pope to resign. Francis initially refused to comment and appeared to think no action was required.
By calling the convention of bishops, the pope has tacitly accepted that that is not going to work. His U-turn is damaging in itself. But potentially far more dangerous is Archbishop Viganò’s allegation. It highlights Francis’s weakest point—his repeated mishandling of clerical sex-abuse allegations. Earlier this year he vigorously defended a Chilean bishop accused of shielding predators, only to then accept he had made a mistake. Moreover, Archbishop Viganò’s intervention has allowed the pope’s theologically conservative critics to make common cause with those, including many who applaud Francis’s liberal reforms, who are dismayed by the pope’s tone-deafness when it comes to dealing with clerical sex abuse, and especially the failure of bishops to protect victims.
The abuses that have so far been uncovered have mostly been in the rich world, perhaps because respect for the institution has kept them under wraps elsewhere. But that has been enough to force action. The American church holds unrivalled influence and financial sway over the Vatican, and many there urgently want root-and-branch reform. Some Catholics suspect Archbishop Viganò of acting out of spite, perhaps because Francis did not make him a cardinal. But in this affair it is the message, not the messenger, that counts, and Francis has so far failed to discredit it. If the conference produces radical action to deal with the misdeeds, not just of priests but of the prelates who covered up for them, then the pope can perhaps turn the tide. But the danger is that it will be seen as a yet another way to keep the lid on a crisis that continues to boil, and scald.