Pope Francis has his feet on the ground but he may be too late to save the Church from the damage of sex abuse scandals

Is he doomed to play the role of Mikhail Gorbachev to an organisation long as secretive as the Kremlin?

Related Topics

Pope Francis continues to hit the nail on the head. “I ask you,” he told Davos this week, in a message read out at the opening ceremony, “to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it … The growth of equality means something more than economic growth.”

That sums up his gift in a nutshell. He doesn’t hector these billionaires, doesn’t tell them to put on sackcloth and ashes. He acknowledges their power. He accentuates the positive, while leaving no one in doubt about the negative. And he does all that in simple words, in the right forum, at the right moment.

It is a gift he has, one which his predecessor so plainly lacked. We have seen it over and over again in the past year.

In the Sistine Chapel, at a mass baptism, he said: “If [your babies] are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice, because they are the most important people here.” Bared breasts? Beneath Michelangelo’s mighty ceiling? Babies the most important people, in the presence of the Pope? Yes, yes, and again, yes; this is a Pope with his feet on the ground, who sees the vanity of the high prelates he represents and does everything to debunk it.

But is this extraordinary, yet ordinary, man too late to transform the institution he heads? Is he doomed to play the role of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to an organisation which for many years has been as secretive as the Kremlin, as riddled with contradictions as the Russian Communist Party, as ramshackle as the Soviet Union?

It was the editor of an Italian daily paper who suggested the analogy to me. You don’t see the damage the priestly sex abuse scandal has done to the Church, he told me. It haemorrhages church-goers every time a story breaks.

I was reminded of his opinion by the news from Chicago this week, where 6,000 documents have just been released by the Chicago Archdiocese, detailing allegations of sexual abuse against 30 priests. They include allegations of sodomy and forced oral sex, a priest who allegedly masturbated on top of a young girl, another who warned his victim at gunpoint not to report him to the authorities. As shocking as the acts is the response of the church authorities, who continually shuffled the alleged abusers from parish to parish.

When, in extreme cases, they were punished, the penalties seem laughably light: Father Daniel Holihan, known to his Catechism students as “Happy Hands Holihan”, was finally removed from priestly duties after 10 years. He was “directed to spend at least one hour per day in prayer for the victims of abuse, particularly those whom he has harmed”.

The Vatican had no comment to make about this. That is not surprising: in contrast to his unlucky predecessor, who put his foot in his mouth over every conceivable issue, Francis knows instinctively when to speak out and when to hold his tongue. And this is knowledge worth having, as he pointed out in his Epiphany sermon. “One aspect of the light which guides us in the journey of faith,” he said, “is holy ‘cunning’, that spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognise danger and avoid it … As Jesus told his disciples, ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Like Gorbachev, coming after the long winter, Francis brings a touch of spring. But meanwhile, the churches grow ever emptier, even in Italy. The damage has been done. It will take more than the serpent’s shrewdness to undo it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Real Estate Solicitor 2+PQE - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGH VALUE REAL ESTATE / RESID...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Are you looking for part time/ ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Theresa May  

It's not hard to imagine Prime Minister Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street

Jane Merrick
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?