Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter, recently sat down with Georgetown's Gerard Mannion to discuss the challenges of covering the Catholic Church during its current moment of crisis. During the conversation, he offered a cautious appraisal of Pope Francis' performance in handling the sexual abuse crisis and spoke about Church politics and possible paths forward.
Assessing Francis's Response
McElwee expressed cautious approval of Francis's response so far to the sexual abuse crisis. In particular he praised Francis' "extraordinary" bishop appointments, which he said elevated people "whose first priority is taking care of people, of being decent and kind, and not protecting the institution at all costs."
Even so, McElwee expressed clear disappointment at some of Francis' actions, noting that many promised reforms have yet to materialize. He suggested that Francis' largely unexplained scrapping of a previously approved plan for a single tribunal at the Vatican dedicated to evaluating allegations of abuse mishandling raised questions of transparency. Asked about some of the Pope's statements while in Ireland, which appeared to indicate a lack of awareness regarding the sexual abuse scandal there, McElwee said, "Charitably, I think what I can say is that what the Pope said doesn't make sense to me."
While McElwee generally defended Francis's response to the allegations raised by Archbishop Viganò in a letter last month, he worried that continued silence is problematic. "I think for a while it made a lot of sense. I think the Pope needed to understand what was being alleged, what the facts were, and who was behind it. I think that time has passed," McElwee commented.
As to whether or not the ongoing scandals would be used to "undermine" Francis' efforts to promote social justice, McElwee was blunt.
Until we answer this, nothing else matters.
Paths Forward for the Church
In McElwee's telling, the immediate future will be somewhat bleak for Catholics. The Pennsylvania report, he suggested, is likely to inspire other investigations in other states, each of which will probably rehash many similar facts. Nonetheless, he embraced the possibilities that could be afforded by an honest confrontation with the Church's history. "I don't think it's up to the Church," he said. "I think it's up to independent authorities to hold investigations and to learn what happened, and how the Church reacted and whether it reacted poorly or not."
With regard to the Church's internal proceedings, McElwee made a few recommendations, including involving the laity in more decisions regarding abuse and creating an office in the Vatican dedicated entirely to handling abuse allegations. But in the immediate term, McElwee was clear about what was needed:
For me the key thing is allowing a place for survivors to come forward, to make the accusation, and for them to be treated seriously.