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2018 Put Pope Francis To The Test


It's been a bad year for Pope Francis. He got off to a rocky start dealing with the church's sexual abuse scandals. He ends the year still dealing with those scandals. They have overshadowed the agenda of other Vatican reforms he was hoping to pursue. NPR senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli joins me now from Rome to review the pope's troubles over these last 12 months and look ahead to where he may try to take the church in 2019. Hi there, Sylvia.


KELLY: So it's worth remembering, just to set the stage for this, that when Francis was elected pope, he was seen as a reformer. And yet this year I think safe to say even his supporters ended up wondering if he has revealed himself as something different. Let's start where the year started. January - he took a trip to Chile and ended up embroiled in a scandal where he was defending a bishop who had been accused of covering up sexual abuse.

POGGIOLI: In fact, all his signature issues - champion of the poor, migrants and environment - were all eclipsed by the clerical sex abuse scandals in many countries. After he botched the affair in Chile, he did admit his mistakes, and he made a very powerful mea culpa. And over the year, he has made many forceful statements against predator priests. He's also pressured several bishops to resign. He's talked the talk, but many abuse survivors say he hasn't sufficiently delivered. And some Vatican watchers say his blind spot on this reflects his Latin-American roots because as archbishop in Argentina, he simply never had to deal with the issue.

KELLY: Right. I mean, no sooner had he put the whole trip to Chile behind him and, as you said, issued a mea culpa for that then the story exploded here in the U.S. with this grand jury report out of Pennsylvania that accused hundreds of priests of crimes against children and also raised a lot of questions about what the pope had known when.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. And, you know, in his Christmas message just last week to Vatican bureaucrats, he admitted the church has been buffeted by strong winds and tempests that are undermining his credibility. He acknowledged serious past errors by churchmen, and he warned that the church will do everything necessary to bring to justice whoever has committed such crimes. He even called on priests who have molested or raped minors to turn themselves in to civil authorities. And looking forward, he has summoned the presidents of all the world's bishops' conferences to meet at the Vatican in February to tackle sex abuse prevention specifically. It'll be the first global church summit meeting on what has become the most challenging issue of his papacy.

KELLY: I want to just point out one marker along the year that was for the pope, which was the trip that he made to Ireland. A lot of Irish people didn't turn out to see him. They boycotted the visit, which is - would have been unimaginable a generation ago in Ireland. What does that tell us about the damage that these sex abuse scandals have done to the church's standing as an institution and also possibly to Pope Francis' reputation?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think you could probably say that in terms of the sex abuse crisis, Ireland is ground zero. I think no society, no country has been so devastated, not just predator priests, abuse - clerical sex abuse but also treatment of women, of children in schools. There's been a huge turn against the church recently. In a referendum just before the pope's visit, the country overwhelmingly voted in favor of abortion. It's become an extremely secularized country, and there is huge resentment towards the Catholic Church.

KELLY: And to my question about his legacy, what might this year mean for Pope Francis' reputation as a reformer?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, and a lot of it will depend on this meeting next February. The problem is that two-thirds of the bishops come from the developing world, mostly Africa and Asia. They've not experienced these same scandals. And they're likely to resist the imposition of universal guidelines from the wealthy part of the world.

KELLY: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.