Did Francis really say that 2% of priests are paedophiles?

La Reppublica on Sunday published another ‘interview’ with Pope Francis by its 90-year-old atheist founder, Eugenio Scalfari, which has set the news media humming with three apparently remarkable claims: that one in 50 priests — that would make 8,000 members of the clergy worldwide— are paedophiles; that their ranks even included “bishops and cardinals”, and that he was looking at “solutions” to priestly celibacy.

Whether he actually said of those things is impossible to know, because Scalfari never interviewed Francis, but had an informal conversation with him on 10 July — as he has done twice before — which he did not record or take notes from. Last year, a similar report on a conversation with Francis by Scalfari was eventually removed by the Vatican because it was not considered a reliable record of what he said.

Although it has been reported as an interview, Scalfari does not claim that it was: it is an article is about his meeting. A source close to the Pope quoted by Andrea Tornielli describes it as “a cordial conversation to exchange ideas; the content of such meetings is never published. And Scalfari knew this.”

The problem is that Scalfari atttributes words to the Pope which he cannot possibly remember accurately.

The Vatican spokesman, Father Lombardi, said:

As happened in a previous, similar circumstance, it is important to notice that the words Mr. Scalfari attributes to the Pope, “in quotations” come from the expert journalist Scalfari’s own memory of what the Pope said and is not an exact transcription of a recording nor a review of such a transcript by the Pope himself to whom the words are attributed. We should not or must not therefore speak in any way, shape or form of an interview in the normal use of the word, as if there had been a series of questions and answers that faithfully and exactly reflect the precise thoughts of the one being interviewed.

It is safe to say, however that the overall theme of the article captures the spirit of the conversation between the Holy Father and Mr. Scalfari while at the same time strongly restating what was said about the previous “interview” that appeared in La Repubblica: the individual expressions that were used and the manner in which they have been reported, cannot be attributed to the Pope.

Father Lombardi was particularly keen to scotch the notion that the Pope ever said there were cardinals who were paedophiles or that he would find “solutions” to priestly celibacy, as if celibacy were in some way a problem or linked to the abuse question. Father Lombardi adds:

In the article published in La Repubblica, these two affirmations are clearly attributed to the Pope but curiously, the quotations were opened at the beginning but were not closed at the end. We must ask ourselves why the the final quotations are not present: is this an omission or explicit recognition that this is an attempt to manipulate some naïve readers?

Father Lombardi does not contradict, however, Scalfari’s recollection that Francis said about two per cent of priests were paedophiles. Scalfari is likely to have accurately recollected such a statistic. But what did Francis — according to Scalfari’s recollection — actually say?

Scalfari says that Francis spoke to him about the crisis in the family, and the vices — among them sex abuse, often linked to others, such as drug abuse — were a symptom. Asked about the same in the Church, Francis apparently said: “we too have this leprosy in our home”. Was it widespread? Scalfari asked. Scalfari then puts the following words in Francis’s mouth — although, as Father Lombardi points out, there is no closing inverted comma.

Many of my collaborators who work with me on this reassure me with reliable data which put the paedophilia within the Church at the level of two per cent. This statistic should bring me comfort but I have to tell you it brings me no comfort at all. I regard it as very serious. Two per cent of priests are paedophiles and even bishops and cardinals. And others, even more numerous, know about it but keep quiet, they punish without saying the reason why. I find this state of affairs unsustainable and it is my intention to confront it with the severity which it calls for.

It is easy to imagine Francis saying roughly this — although not, obviously, including “cardinals” (sadly, there have been bishop abusers, including the recently-laicized former nuncio to the Dominican Republic).

The statistic he was given by his “collaborators” is a contemporary estimate. The four per cent statistic given some years ago by the authoritative John Jay study into abuse over the decades in the U.S. Church is considered very high, for it was gleaned from statistics on allegations, rather than proven cases; and as is by now well established, the 1960s-80s saw a large increase in those allegations (often relating to abuse which took place much earlier) which has since dropped drastically as the Church has taken steps to tackle the issue, including better screening of applicants to the priesthood.

Two per cent is an educated guess. There is no way of knowing exactly. There has been no “Vatican study” to determine the percentages, as some news reports are claiming. And in some parts of the world where abuse of minors is not (yet) a social issue, it is frankly impossible to know. Part of the problem, as Francis appears to suggest, is that sometimes abusive priests are “punished” — removed from active ministry — but without the reason being given.

Francis is claiming no expertise. He only knows what he is told. But he is saying that, however small the percentage, it is shocking, and brings him no comfort; and he is determined to do what he can to eliminate it altogether. That means extending the kind of guidelines and accountability that exist now in the U.S. and European Church to the Church in every part of the world.

The only remaining question is why Francis continues to talk to Scalfari, given the chaos he creates afterwards. In the article, Scalfari says that Francis welcomes the chance to talk to a non-believer, and values their exchanges. The dialogue is clearly important to the Pope, and being misquoted and misunderstood is obviously a price which Francis regards as worth paying.

Scalfari should reciprocate that trust by in future refraining from putting his recollections of what the Pope told him in quotation marks.

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