In the matter of Abp Aupetit, Pope Francis sacrifices truth to political expediency

Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor, and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

If you’re wondering why the Church seems to be making such halting progress in dealing with abuse, a fair surmise could be that it’s because the head man doesn’t think sexual sins by clergy are all that serious.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris celebrates the annual chrism Mass at historic St. Sulpice Church on April 17, 2019. Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Archbishop Aupetit after a newspaper report criticized his management of the archdiocese and accused him of having an affair with a woman in 2012, an accusation he has denied. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

So, how bad is l’Affaire Aupetit?

It depends on how you look at it.

From a PR standpoint, it is going to be a rough few days in the papers, maybe a rough few weeks. If French reporters crack a few nuts, it could become one of those recurring nightmares that come over months.

To hear Francis tell it, the allegations are that Archbishop Michel Aupetit had a “failing on his part, a failing against the sixth commandment, but not total, of small caresses and massages that he did to the secretary,” some years ago before he was even a bishop, but apparently while he was serving in the Paris chancery.

As a matter of Church governance, it is very bad – worse than the Bishop Barros crisis that exploded in Pope Francis’s face almost four years ago, after he pulled the pin on the Chilean abuse-and-coverup hand grenade and dropped it in his own lap – in large part because Francis has looked at the whole miserable business and decided on the one course that could be more disastrous than the already insane route on which he had previously taken himself and the whole government of the Church.

For those of you who need it, here’s a primer/refresher on l’Affaire Barros.

Pope Francis precipitated the Barros crisis when he accused three Chilean survivor-advocates – Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andrés Murillo – of calumniating one of their abuser’s protégés.

Their abuser was then-Fr. Fernando Karadima, a powerful Chilean celebrity cleric and serial sexual abuser who finally faced a semblance of justice from a canonical trial at the Vatican in 2011. Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo claimed that then-Fr. Juan Barros witnessed the abuse Karadima perpetrated against them and others, covered for Karadima, and otherwise enabled Karadima’s abusive conduct.

Among Karadima’s chief lieutenants, Fr. Barros received consecration to the episcopate in 1995. Barros was one of four Karadima protégés who eventually became bishops. Over the objections of both the faithful and the bishops of Chile, Pope Francis picked Barros to lead the Diocese of Osorno in 2015.

Pope Francis first accused Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo of calumny in an unscripted exchange that was part of a press gaggle at the gate to the venue in Iquique, Chile, where the pope was going to celebrate Mass on the last day of what was supposed to have been a fence-mending visit to the country.

After news of the pope’s “hot takes” dominated headlines during his next stop in Peru, Francis fielded a question about the business during his in-flight presser on the return trip to Rome. In short, Francis doubled down on calumny accusations. He said he hadn’t seen any evidence to support the allegations of wrongdoing, and that the victims had never brought their case to him.

“You [reporters], in all goodwill, tell me that there are victims, but I haven’t seen any, because they haven’t come forward,” Francis said.

The only problem is that neither assertion comported well with fact.

Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo were eyewitnesses. Their allegations were evidence. Also, Juan Carlos Cruz had written a letter to Pope Francis, which the head of Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, personally delivered to Francis by hand, in 2015.

Eventually, Pope Francis sent his top sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, to Chile. Scicluna returned with a 2,400-page report that has never been published, which reportedly detailed widespread abuse and systemic coverup. Francis invited Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo to the Vatican so they could hug it out among themselves, and called an emergency meeting of the whole Chilean episcopate, at the end of which every sitting bishop in the country tendered his resignation.

Pope Francis accepted only a few of them, piecemeal. Francis also eventually laicized Karadima and a couple of other Chilean prelates. The Church in Chile has not recovered. Her vicissitudes were the prelude to four years of unremitting worldwide scandal, during which the global scope and persistence of the underlying leadership crisis have finally begun to emerge.

In short, Pope Francis dealt with the Barros business by trusting the word of a prelate, Juan Barros of Osorno, over the testimony of victims and the persistent protests of the faithful in Osorno, Chile, before he “repented” of his conduct and then – to judge by his conduct – repented of his repentance.

Then, Pope Francis preferred the accused bishop over victim-witnesses his own canonical tribunal had found credible, and ignored the protests of the faithful – when he wasn’t actively and pointedly insulting them – for years, before half-heartedly acceding to an investigation that was desultory in effect and conducting a dog-and-pony show in lieu of real reform.

In the Aupetit case, Pope Francis is now acceding to what he describes as a clamoring mob. “What did he do that was so serious he had to resign?” Pope Francis asked with some rhetorical flourish in answering a query he fielded during his in-flight presser en route to Rome from Athens on Sunday. “Someone answer me,” Francis continued, “what did he do?”

“[W]hen the chatter grows, grows, grows and takes away a person’s good name,” Francis continued, “he will not be able to govern because he has lost his reputation.”

“That is why I accepted the resignation,” Francis went on to say.

Comparison to another judge – infamous for dealing similarly with another accused fellow – rather invites itself. Pilate, however, conducted an investigation and reasonably believed the man in his custody was innocent of the charges against him. Pope Francis has detailed allegations and an admission of some untoward behavior. It appears that both have sacrificed truth to political expediency.

As for the clamoring, one may readily accept that a public thirsty for scandal will make a ruckus. That is the way of things. On the other hand, we have it on reasonable authority that bishops are supposed to be blameless. Now, “blameless” is not the same as perfect. Nevertheless, not feeling up the secretary – leave aside the not entirely irrelevant question whether she was game for the touching – is not a terribly high bar.

The faithful have a right to know the character and conduct of their rulers in the faith.

If you’re wondering why the Church seems to be making such halting progress in dealing with abuse – and with episcopal malfeasance regarding both abuse and coverup – a fair surmise could be that it’s because the head man doesn’t think sexual sins by clergy are all that serious. In the meantime, however, he’ll sack a guy without even investigating, if he garners just a couple rounds of bad press (because the truth isn’t important). That’s not any sort of interpretation. Pope Francis said so, himself, in words.

“This is sin,” he said of Archbishop Aupetit’s alleged transgression(s), “but it is not of the most serious sins, because the sins of the flesh are not the most serious.”

“The gravest sins,” Francis continued, “are those that are more angelic: pride, hatred. These are graver. So Aupetit is a sinner, as am I – I don’t know if you are aware … but probably – as was Peter, the bishop on whom Jesus Christ founded the Church.”

Here’s the thing, though.

Granted, even arguendo, that Pope Francis is not wrong about the relative gravity of sexual sins, there is always something of the “angelic” in the mix when men who wield ecclesiastical power commit them.

Rehearsing only a few of the outstanding questions regarding Archbishop Aupetit will offer sufficient cases-in-point. if Aupetit’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, knew about the allegations and didn’t say – as Aupetit himself has suggested – then Vingt-Trois should be sanctioned. (Aupetit’s mentor, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, is dead.)

If Rome knew – or had reasonable suspicion – about Aupetit’s extracurricular lapse, then one may fairly inquire why Aupetit continued to advance in his ecclesiastical career. Paris is not exactly Osorno, either. Either the Vatican knew, or the Vatican did not know. If the Vatican knew, then the pope should have known. If the pope didn’t know, he ought to be firing people, starting with the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

If Pope Francis is unwilling or unable to carry this thing through, to fire anyone and everyone who needs it – without fear or favor, as he has certainly proved himself willing and able swing the ax when it has suited him – then perhaps he should consider the example of his predecessor, who resigned when he realized that he could no longer govern.

In any case, the deep grammar of corruption and rot in the Church – the nexus of clerical sexual misconduct and ecclesiastical power – is something Francis himself has recognized and even addressed thematically under the rubric of “clericalism” in an August 2018 letter to the people of God. Whether Francis really understood what he was saying in his letter, or even really meant what he said, have both been questions from the get-go.

Here’s hoping this business in Paris hasn’t given the definitive answer.