The scandals haunting Francis


For years, allegations that would torpedo the career of any secular Western leader have been concealed or played down by a Praetorian Guard of liberal journalists who, back in 2013, staked their reputations on “the Great Reformer”. As a result, even devout Catholics don’t know that the first Jesuit pope has tried to shield several repulsive sex abusers from justice, for reasons never satisfactorily explained.

Only now is the truth coming out, to the relief of Vatican staff who have to deal with a pope who bears little resemblance to the wisecracking, avuncular figure they see on television. They are — or were until recently — terrified of a boss whose autocratic rule is shaped more by his rages and simmering resentments than by any theological agenda. And they can’t conceal their satisfaction that one particularly gruesome scandal involving papal ally Fr Marko Rupnik is stripping away the facade of “the Squid Game pontificate”, as it’s nicknamed, after the South Korean Netflix series in which contestants have to win children’s games to save themselves from execution.

The Rupnik affair is the most sickening scandal I’ve encountered in more than 30 years of reporting on the Catholic Church. Rupnik, a supremely well-connected artist on whose tacky mosaics the Church has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds, was expelled from the Jesuit order last year after he was credibly accused of raping religious sisters belonging to a community he founded in his native Slovenia. Women have come forward claiming that the community was a sex cult. They say he tried to force them to watch pornographic films, violently took the virginity of one sister in a car and encouraged young women to engage in sexual threesomes that, according to Rupnik, would illustrate the workings of the Holy Trinity.

Last year, facing an explosion of rage on Catholic social media — mainstream media were strangely silent — Pope Francis said he would act against his friend Rupnik. He hasn’t done so. Nor has he explained why, when Rupnik was facing excommunication for abusing the confessional to “absolve” one of his female sexual victims, he was invited to conduct a retreat at the Vatican, or why his subsequent excommunication was mysteriously lifted within weeks with the approval of the Pope.

This month Fr Rupnik was listed in the 2024 Vatican directory as a consultant on Divine Worship, of all things. Meanwhile Bishop Daniele Libanori, the Jesuit who investigated the women’s claims and found them credible, has been removed from his position as an auxiliary bishop in the diocese of Rome.

Another toxic scandal is still unfolding in Argentina. In 2016, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, the former Cardinal Bergoglio’s most pampered protégé, had to resign from the diocese of Orán after he was accused of financial corruption and aggressive attempts to seduce seminarians. The Pope’s response? He airlifted Zanchetta to Rome and invented a job for him:”‘assessor” of the funds managed by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican treasury. Zanchetta was later convicted of assaulting seminarians, even though Rome refused to supply documents requested by the Argentinian court. He’s serving his jail sentence in a retreat house amid reports that his accusers are being harassed.

 And there are other cases: as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis unsuccessfully attempted to keep the child molester Fr Julio Grassi out of jail, commissioning a report that branded his victims as liars.

The dark secrets of this pontificate will weigh heavily on cardinals’ minds in their pre-conclave discussions before they cast their votes in the Sistine Chapel. They will be speaking in code: no one wants to take the risk of openly trashing the reputation of a recently deceased (or retired) Supreme Pontiff. But the cardinals will be forced to talk about the increasingly poisonous divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics, which date back to the Second Vatican Council but have been made far worse under this pontificate. And they will find it hard to draw a line between Francis’s policies and his personality, since he takes such visible delight in using his powers to spring surprises on the universal Church.