VATICAN CITY >> Pope Francis came to power promising not only to create a more inclusive church and to clean up an ossified Vatican bureaucracy, but also to remove the stain of child sexual abuse.
A global pedophilia scandal plagued his two immediate predecessors. With Francis’ election in 2013, many expected progress. Francis talked about powerful committees to safeguard children, tribunals to try bishops and a “zero tolerance” policy for offending priests.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
Today, the Vatican announced that Francis had granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, now the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, and one the pope had brought into his inner circle even as a cloud of allegations swirled over the cardinal in Australia.
“We talked about my need to take leave to clear my name,” Pell, 76, stone-faced in simple black cleric’s clothes, said as he sat next to the Vatican’s spokesman and reiterated his innocence. “So I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.”
It was unusual and jarring, bad news for a pontificate that has mostly bathed in global adoration and done wonders to improve the public image of the church.
But for all of Francis’ good works, good will and popularity, disappointed critics saw Pell’s removal as only the latest evidence that a pope who has focused the world’s attention on issues from climate change to peace on earth has his own blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse in his ranks.
“What happened today clearly demonstrates that the revolution of Francis in the church, when it comes to the issue of sex abuse, is in name only, and not in deeds,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, an Italian journalist and the author of “Lust,” a book published this year about sexual abuse in the Vatican that begins with a chapter about Pell.
He said that despite the pope’s talk, “the fight against pedophilia is not a priority for Francis.”