Remarks by Pope Francis drew attention over the weekend for appearing to voice papal support for a Sicilian bishop accused of covering up sexual abuse.
The pope held a routine audience Saturday with a group from the Little House of Mercy Association, a charitable organization in Sicily. He began his brief remarks with a greeting.
“I greet Bishop Rosario Gisana of Piazza Armerina: he is good, this bishop, good. He was persecuted, slandered, yet he stood firm, always, just, a just man,” he said in welcoming the group.
Francis did not elaborate on what he meant by Gisana being persecuted and slandered. But the pope’s comments quickly sparked controversy, as Gisana is a contentious figure facing allegations of covering up sexual abuse.
The bishop has been accused of failing to respond to a report of sexual abuse by a catechist in his diocese. The alleged victim claims to have reported the abuse to Gisana immediately, a claim that the bishop denies.
In addition, the bishop has been accused of protecting a priest in the diocese, Giuseppe Rugolo, who is currently on trial for child pornography and sexual violence against minors.
Evidence introduced during Rugolo’s trial includes audio recordings of Gisana telling him that there was another priest in the diocese who had “done much worse things than you did,” as well as telling him that he “had all the conditions to become a saint.”
During his papacy, Francis has issued numerous reforms aimed at increasing episcopal accountability in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. He created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014, and he issued the 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, outlining new procedures on reporting and responding to sexual abuse allegations.
It is unclear if Bishop Gisana is the subject of either a formal complaint or investigation under the norms of Vos estis, which require bishops to meet all “obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities,” and which make it a canonical crime for bishops to engage in “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations.”
But the pope has also faced criticism from those who believe his efforts have fallen short of what is needed to usher in real reform, including from his own pontifical commission.
The Gisana case is not the first time the pope has sparked controversy by making comments that would seem to defend a bishop accused of covering up abuse.
In early 2018, on a visit to Latin America, Francis was asked during an interview about Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, Chile who was accused of witnessing and covering up abuses committed by a prominent Chilean priest.
The pope answered, “The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak. There is not one shred of proof against him. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”
Francis’ comments led to an outpouring of criticism, as well as an unprecedented rebuke from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
In a statement, O’Malley said the pope’s words were a “source of great pain” for abuse survivors.
“Words that convey the message ‘if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed’ abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile,” O’Malley said.
Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis apologized for his comments, although he continued to support Barros.
Later in 2018, amid a growing abuse crisis in Chile, Barros – along with every other bishop in Chile – submitted his resignation to the pope. Francis accepted the resignation of Barros and a few others.
Francis also drew criticism for supporting Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, an Argentinian bishop accused and later convicted of sexually abusing seminarians.
In 2015-16, Francis sided with the bishop despite mounting complaints from local priests. According to diocesan officials, the pope accepted Zanchetta’s explanation that the obscene photos of himself and young men found on his phone were planted by “conservatives” and “anti-Francis” forces in the diocese.
The pope finally accepted Zanchetta’s resignation in 2017 — ostensibly for health reasons — but then created a position for him in the curia, giving him a home in the Vatican hotel where the pope himself lives.
In 2022, Zanchetta was criminally convicted of sexually assaulting two former adult seminarians. He was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison.
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