In a highly unusual move, senior Vatican spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, intervened yesterday to deny comments allegedly made by Pope Francis to Rome daily, La Repubblica, in relation to the issues of clerical sex abuse and priestly celibacy.
In an interview with one of the paper’s founders, former editor Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis was quoted as saying that cardinals had been involved in acts of clerical sex abuse, while he also allegedly said he would “find a solution” to the question of priestly celibacy. In a statement issued yesterday afternoon, Fr Lombardi suggested that, given Mr Scalfari had been working from his memory rather than from a recorded interview, some of the comments attributed to the pope were not accurate.
He said: “For example, this applies to two statements which have aroused a lot of interest but which are not attributable to the pope. That is when the pope says that there are cardinals amongst the ranks of paedophile priests and also when he says in relation to the question of priestly celibacy that he ‘will find a solution’.”
Fr Lombardi even goes on to accuse Mr Scalfari of perhaps attempting to manipulate ingenuous readers by his use (or lack of) of quotation marks. Despite the Vatican spokesman’s denials, however, one can only conclude that whatever about the wording, there is much truth in the sentiments attributed to the pope.
For a start, there is nothing new about accusations of a cardinal being involved in clerical sex abuse. Remember that in March 2013, Scottish cardinal, Keith O’Brien, withdrew from the conclave that elected Francis because of his involvement in a sex scandal involving seminarians. The cardinal even issued a statement in which he confessed that “my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”.
Furthermore, it sounds very much like the authentic voice of Francis when he says that statistics showing that only 2 per cent of the clergy are involved in sex abuse give him no comfort at all. Clerical sex abuse is “unacceptable”, says the pope, adding that he intends to combat it with “all the severity it requires”.
As for his alleged comments on priestly celibacy, it is likely that, whatever about his language, this is yet another issue on which he wants to stimulate in-church debate. Nor can there be any ambiguity about his renewed condemnation not only of Italy’s various mafias but in particular of Italian church collusion with the Mafia.
Fr Lombardi may have denied the tone of the pope’s comments but their substance remains incontrovertible.