Pope Francis is more than the administrative and spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the face of a massive international organization that has been working very hard and very specifically in recent years to drastically shift public perception about what the Church is, and what it means in and to the rest of the world.
Given that key responsibility to carry and embody this narrative, Francis already had a lot of responsibility, especially with every word he said publicly being scrutinized and dissected. So, when more reports of widespread and consistent clergy sex abuse once again flared up in cities across the globe, Francis eventually had to offer some kind of statement about the horrific allegations of both abuse and alleged cover ups.
But, before that narrative could get off the ground, another emerged, this one holding Pope Francis indirectly responsible for some of the crimes. No one said he perpetrated them, but some came out and said he knew and did little or nothing… and others called the new information evidence that the Pope abetted known abusers.
Recognizing the gravity of those claims and the damage they could do, Francis recently called a summit of world bishops to discuss how to address these allegations, both against the church and against him personally.
Meanwhile, victims’ advocacy groups used that move as an opportunity to amplify their own message. David Clohessy, director of SNAP, told the Associated Press, “There’s absolutely no reason to think any good will come of such a meeting… Criminal prosecutions, governmental investigations and journalistic exposes — stemming from brave victims and church whistleblowers — are the best way to protect kids, expose wrongdoers and end cover-ups…”
That narrative caught fire. More than ever before, people were publicly saying the proposed summit, scheduled for next February, is more about discussing how to protect the church through this latest round of accusations and court battles, rather than taking care of victims.
These narratives are playing against a backdrop that paints Francis is a poor light due to what many are calling the “botched handling” of victims reporting abuse by a now notorious predator priest in Chile. In that case, Francis went on record, openly discrediting the victims’ stories until they were proven to be factual.
Francis was forced to admit “errors in judgment” and essentially clean house in Chile’s Bishop’s Conference, but the timing of that move only inflamed the narratives coming from groups who say the Church and the Pope are not doing nearly enough to protect children and punish offending priests.
Now, general allegations that have dogged the Church collectively, are also being leveled at the Pope, personally. It’s new ground in a PR narrative that has waxed and waned over the past two decades, and these allegations may require both a personal and corporate response.