Pope Francis accepted the resignations of three Chilean bishops in connection with the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy in their country.
One bishop was the lightning rod for uproar among Chile's Catholics because of accusations that as a priest he covered up abuse by a priest who was his mentor. The pope's appointment of him as a bishop and his initial vehement defense of the man in the face of protests have been the low point of Francis' papacy.
The other bishops whose resignations were accepted have already reached the episcopal retirement age of 75, so the pope's having them step down is not going to satisfy critics who point out that cover-ups have been a systemic problem involving more than a handful of bishops.
By having the entire Chilean hierarchy come to Rome, Francis seems to recognize that fact. It remains to be seen if that recognition leads to a thorough rooting-out of the problem not only in Chile, but throughout the church.
That problem is not primarily the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by clergy and other church workers. Abuse is heinous regardless of who perpetrates it, and it must be dealt with by society as a whole.
What makes the church situation worse is that the Catholic Church has nurtured a sense of impunity on the part of the sick perpetrators as well as bishops and other superiors who moved abusers from place to place, refused to cooperate with civil society in confronting the problem and further abused victims by refusing to believe them or maligning them as money-grubbing enemies of the church.
The pope must do more and be seen doing more, not only vis-a-vis the Chilean bishops, but as pastor of the whole church.
When the abuse of children by clergy first became news in the United States and other English-speaking countries, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, then-prefect for the Congregation for Clergy, claimed that abuse was limited to the English-speaking parts of the world.
Clearly, a red hat does not overcome the ignorance, prejudice and (to give its true name) stupidity of the head and heart under it. It has not been the English language's ancient abandonment of grammatical gender that caused abuse in the English-speaking world, but it was a commitment to law and individual rights protected by media watchdogs in those societies that finally shone a spotlight on the scandal.
Asia has the ingredients for disaster: a clerical culture reinforced by cultural deference to authority, and too many bishops who are more concerned with "saving face" for the church (usually seen as themselves) than with truth or justice, as is seen in frequent episcopal criticisms of news "that harms the image of the church," especially when it is true.
Asian bishops' conferences have been slow to develop policy guidelines for dealing with situations of abuse of young persons by clergy, even though the Vatican mandated such guidelines years ago. Some that did develop guidelines to mollify Rome never made them public.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan may be the only one that in response to the situation in other countries proactively researched the problem within their own country and published guidelines for dealing with it. The bishops also apologized for not having been aware of the situation sooner and promised to remain alert in the future.
Their research turned up another problem that has not yet received as much public notice as the abuse of children and youth, but which is more widespread and equally devastating to its victims. That is the sexual abuse of women by clergy. The Japanese bishops' response was to set up a desk in the conference to advocate the rights of women and children in Japan's church and society, including the issue of abuse and harassment by clergy.
Though more than a decade has passed since the Japanese initiatives, other bishops in Asia have not followed that example. The window of opportunity for them to deal with the problem before it becomes a major scandal is closing.
Those Asian churches where the clerical culture that Pope Francis rails against is strong among clergy and laity — India, Korea and the Philippines come immediately to mind — and where the rights of women and children are violated with impunity are probably on the verge of scandals that can only be headed off by immediate, honest and effective responses.
Of course, the reason for acting should not be for the sake of heading off scandal. Doing that would itself be scandalous. The leaders of Asia's churches must act for the simple reason that it is right and just to do so.
Is that likely to happen? Probably not, even though Japan's bishops have shown it to be possible.
Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.