March 13 (Bloomberg) -- With Pope Francis, we have someone completely new, if not completely different.
There are many firsts: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, is the first non-European in modern times to become the bishop of Rome, the first South American, the first Jesuit and the first to take the name Francis, after the sainted shepherd of the poor from Assisi.
Bergolio was rumored to be the runner-up to Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, but he’s not particularly well-known. His biographer, Sergio Rubin, says he is self-effacing and humble, the antithesis of those who cloak themselves in Vatican splendor. He never moved into the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires, sleeping in a simple apartment heated by a small stove. For years, he took public transportation around the city and cooked his own meals. At meetings in Rome, he sits in the back row. He spends time in the slums.
But don’t mistake him for a liberal. Francis is from the conservative wing of the Catholic Church. As leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina in the mid-1970s, he did not stand up to the country’s military dictatorship. When Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, then-Cardinal Bergoglio urged Catholics to demonstrate against the legislation. He predicted it would ruin the family.
And then there is the dark cloud hanging over the church and its new pope, although it may have been hard to see amid the pomp of the cardinals floating down the aisle of the Sistine Chapel this week. Last week the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a survey of American Catholics. We view sexual abuse by clergy as the most important problem facing the church today. Some 34 percent of U.S. Catholics cited the scandal as the church’s more pressing challenge. No other issue got more than 10 percent.
Yet many of the cardinals implicated in the scandal participated in the papal conclave as if nothing were wrong. They must have known sexual abuse was going on in their archdioceses, but they opted to cover it up rather than bring the perpetrators to justice.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, was allowed to vote for a new pope despite being stripped of most of his public duties when civil authorities forced the release of documents that revealed his complicity. On the day before he voted for pope, Mahony’s former archdiocese announced it would be paying four men who were molested as boys a total of $10 million, on top of the more than $600 million it has already paid out.
There was a pattern to the cover-ups, as if instructions were coming from on high. Priests were simply moved to a place where their predatory past was unknown, in hopes the incidents would stay quiet, as would their victims. Most did. Even with groups formed to help them, victims have remained far less powerful than those protecting the powerful.
Among the princes of the church there’s been no Eliot Ness, which doesn’t mean the new pontiff couldn’t be. Pope Benedict XVI was celebrated for meeting with and apologizing to some victims. Thanks for that. But he let his moment pass. He denied the extent of the scandal, blamed homosexuals and insisted the church was being picked on.
As a cardinal, Pope Francis, like Benedict, pointed to homosexuals and the church’s failure to weed them out as a big part of the problem. That was then, however, and this is now. Francis of Assisi did not protect the powerful but the powerless. So too may the first pope to take his name.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)