The Catholic Church is once again embroiled in a massive sex and child abuse scandal. This time, though, the allegations and accusations of blame reach all the way to the top. Pope Francis, whose tenure so far has been marked with intentionally reaching out to marginalized people has been accused of “looking the other way” or “not doing enough” when shown evidence of ongoing and widespread abuse. With those headlines being printed across the globe, the Church needed to put out a strong message, and to do it fast.
That statement came accompanied with strong action. Pope Francis publicly defrocked Chilean priest Fernando Karadima seven years after the priest was “sanctioned” in 2011, condemned to a “lifetime of penance and prayer” in punishment for sexually abusing children. Now, as of the most recent announcement, Karadima has been stripped of his priestly role and vestments, officially “laicized.”
The Church’s official spokesman said the move was made “for the good of the church and that “It is without doubt an exceptional measure, but Karadima’s grave crimes have caused exceptional damage in Chile.
The move is also a counter-message to victim advocates and others who have said, for decades now, that the usual “punishment” of “penance and prayer” is nowhere near adequate enough to pay for the crimes committed. Critics have called it no penalty at all, describing that step as nothing more than an all-expenses paid retirement opportunity, rather than a punishment for horrendous actions.
What makes it appear as if this change in Karadima’s status is PR related is that there was no accompanying new or mitigating information related to his case. The Pope just chose to “revisit” the issue, acting “out of conscience and as a pastor” in order to “serve the people of God.”
Some victims seemed surprised and relieved. Speaking to the Associated Press, one victim, Juan Carlos Cruz, said, “I never thought I’d see this day… I hope many survivors feel a bit of relief today…”
The shift in policy will land in different ways, based on who is doing the accounting, but that is a risk the Pope needed to take at this juncture. While some Catholics may feel the Pope is overstepping and may wish Francis to be less decisive in these issues, others, including many Catholics, cheered the decision as a good step forward in resolving what continues to be a horrific and horrendous PR scandal that the Church cannot seem to get past.
Many in the latter group are openly hoping Karadima is the first of many priests to face harsher punishment for their alleged crimes. Whether or not that happens should signal if this decision was a policy shift by the Pope or more of a PR move to shift the focus away from allegations by survivors who put some of the blame on the Pope Francis.