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?

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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.

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