Pope Francis has a long way to go if he wants to get lapsed Catholics back

Jun 27, 2016 at 12:40 p.m. ET
Image: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

I like Pope Francis.

In our home, he goes primarily by his unofficial title: His Holiness Pope Coolpants. He reminds me of another old Catholic dude I was extremely fond of, my grandfather, and his willingness to say things that Catholics don't really like to hear (gays are people/birth control pills — turns out they're not the Devil's Smarties) endears him greatly to me, an ex-Catholic who can still recite the Act of Contrition and has a box full of saint trading cards. I'm still looking for St. Tekakwitha, if anyone can hook a lapsie up.

Which is why it pains me to say that even when he comes out with more Coolpants fodder — like he did this weekend by saying Christians ought to apologize for the way they've treated the gay community and exploited women and children and poor people, and then throwing a scold in there over Brexit — I'm reminded all over again that his trousers will never be fully chill until he addresses the Catholic Church's greatest shame.

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I am talking, of course, about the decades-long child abuse scandal that spanned multiple countries and resulted — just in the United States — in more than 10,000 allegations made toward nearly 5,000 men of the cloth in the church I was raised in.

To be fair, Pope Francis has publicly announced that the church will no longer be tolerating pedophile priests and the bishops who shelter them, which whew — how refreshing. He's also defrocked a few particular baddies and excommunicated a couple of monsters, which wow — super cool of him.

It's still not enough.

It's not enough because his words and actions don't really seem to match up in a number of these incidents. In 2014, he set up the very important-sounding Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and in 2016 — that's this year, ya'll — news broke that bishops were still being told they weren't required to report child sex abuse to the police.

Resistance to the pope's attempts to implement changes in the way the church handles its most vulnerable members is well documented, and people in the fray call the progress "glacial."

Sorry, but when it comes to kids being abused — especially by the men and women they are told have moral primacy and what those children believe to be the very real power to damn or absolve their eternal souls — glacial isn't fast enough. Light speed isn't fast enough.

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Pope Francis makes waves when he talks about the types of things that practicing Catholics either can't conceive of believing or otherwise would never admit to believing during Saturday confession. That's because these things fall outside of Catholic doctrine. It being OK to be gay, the odd use of a condom and the idea that women who get abortions aren't, in fact, Jezebel herself reincarnated go directly against what Catholics believe. Hell, I believed those things too, to my great shame.

So if the pope can make these brash and overdue statements, why the whole smoke-and-mirrors act for the thousands of boys who were raped and abused in the very place they considered a sanctuary? Most of those boys are men now. Some of them are dead. They'll never know justice, especially if, on the one hand, Pope Francis denounces their abusers and, on the other, does little to actually change the environment that allowed them to abuse with impunity.

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I'm not saying the pope shouldn't come out in favor of being a decent human being to our fellow man and the planet we live on. He doesn't have to sacrifice one for the other. He can do both. And he really, really needs to. What does it say when people can accept such a radical dogmatic change as "maybe wear a condom once in a while" but balk at accepting what has always been considered a deadly sin — the rape and abuse of a child?

I have seen firsthand what the effects of clergy abuse does to a family. It's a silent, distant friend of a friend who doesn't bow his head for grace at the dinner table and clenches his jaw when his cousins dip their fingers into the holy water font under the family's Pope John Paul II's portrait. It's the auntie who saves newspaper clippings, stories of Baptist and Mormon clergy abuse stories so she can reassure herself that it's not just her priest who has the taint of evil in him.

It's the edge-of-seat waiting for someone, anyone, to just say something.

Pope Francis' words mean a lot to Catholics. Even to backslid, hell-bound ones like me. He may not have the power his seat commanded centuries ago, but he has the perception of primacy. Many, many people believe his word to be the infallible expression of God's wisdom. He has used that power to become Pope Coolpants to many disenfranchised members of his own community.

Now he needs to speak on this. And keep talking until something changes. Then his papal regalia, pants or no, will be the coolest of all.