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Pope Francis Struggles to Escape Scandals of 2019

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/5/2020 Francis X. Rocca
Pope Francis et al. wearing costumes: Pope Francis presided over a funeral Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Thursday.
 © Evandro Inetti/Zuma Press Pope Francis presided over a funeral Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Thursday.

ROME—Pope Francis ended 2019 in embarrassment when he angrily slapped the hand of a woman who had pulled on his own while he was greeting pilgrims on New Year’s Eve. He began 2020 with a public apology for losing his patience and setting a “bad example.”

It was a fitting coda to a year in which the pope addressed one scandal—the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis—only to become embroiled in another, over the Vatican’s murky finances.

Pope Francis entered last year near the low point of his pontificate. In 2018, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston chided him for insensitivity to sex-abuse victims, the pope admitted to “grave errors” in handling clerical sex abuse in Chile, and his former envoy to the U.S. accused him of ignoring sexual misconduct by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington. The year 2018 ended with an Australian court convicting the pope’s finance chief, Cardinal George Pell, of sexual abuse of children.

During 2019, Pope Francis responded by rolling out high-profile initiatives on combating sexual abuse, beginning with the defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick, the first cardinal to receive such a punishment in modern times.

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Over succeeding months, the pope convened a global summit on sex abuse, tightened the laws against abuse within Vatican City State and unveiled new legislation making it easier to discipline bishops who abuse or cover up abuse. In December, he relaxed the secrecy rules for church documents relating to abuse, which advocates for victims said could make it easier for church officials to cooperate with police and prosecutors.

The new rules for bishops and the lifting of the so-called pontifical secret were “very good moves toward greater accountability and transparency, but it’s the application that matters,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for Religion News Service and author of “Inside the Vatican.”

“The church has thousands of bishops all over the world,” who will require vigilance “to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said.

Some important issues regarding sex abuse remain unresolved.

The Vatican still hasn’t released a long-promised report explaining how Mr. McCarrick rose to power despite widespread rumors of his misconduct going back years. Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a longtime protégé of Pope Francis, is facing charges of sexual harassment in their native Argentina. He denies the charges. And if Australia’s high court declines to overturn Cardinal Pell’s conviction on his final appeal—after he has already begun serving a six-year sentence—the pope will have to decide whether to discipline a prelate who was one of his most important aides.

Meanwhile, a new shadow has fallen over the pope, who was elected in 2013 with a mandate to overhaul the Vatican’s finances and administration.

“We are seeing the practically complete failure of the attempts at cleansing, reform and transparency with regard to Vatican finances,” said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert who writes for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine. Last year “brought the fall of the myth of Francis as the purifying pope.”

The Wall Street Journal revealed in September a gaping budget deficit at the Holy See. The pope had instructed Vatican officials to address the deficit as an urgent problem that imperiled the future of the Holy See, which consists of the Catholic Church’s central administration and the papal diplomatic network abroad.

The Journal also revealed in December that the bulk of the pope’s world-wide annual charity collection wasn’t going to the poor but being used to plug the Vatican’s budget deficit.

Recent months have been marked by a widening scandal over a Vatican investment in London real estate. The matter came to light when Vatican police raided other Vatican departments as part of an investigation into the deal. The pope dismissed the Vatican’s security chief and its top financial regulator.

The nature of any alleged wrongdoing remains unclear. And an international network of anti-money-laundering watchdogs objected strongly to how the investigation was conducted and suspended the Vatican’s membership.

The pope played down the suspension from the Egmont Group network of financial watchdogs.

People familiar with the Vatican’s finance say it risks losing its hard-won acceptance by the international regulatory community and sliding back into its former status as an opaque offshore jurisdiction.

Unless the Vatican can guarantee the independence of its financial regulator, “it will probably return to the gray list, considered by the civilized world as incapable of pursuing financial crime and corruption,” said Marc Odendall, a financier who resigned from the Vatican regulator’s board in November in protest at the pope’s decisions.

Pope Francis found time in 2019 to pursue his outreach to the Muslim world—becoming the first pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula—and promote his environmental agenda, with a three-week meeting of bishops on the challenges faced by the Amazon region. He also named more cardinals, with his nominees making up more than half of the electors for the first time, increasing the chance that his successor will be someone who shares his priorities.

But the lack of progress in taming financial mismanagement threatens to besmirch Pope Francis’ personal legacy, with potential long-term consequences for the institution, observers say. “If the pope doesn’t get the finances cleaned up, the problem will be left to his successor,” Father Reese said. “And at some point you lose the confidence of Catholic donors.”

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

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