Pope Francis and Sex Abuse: A Modern Day Machiavelli in the Vatican?

Controversy and confusion is swirling around Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church. On December 28, 2016, the Pope issued a strong, unequivocal message that bishops should enforce a zero tolerance policy for any priest who sexually abuses a child.  But it seems that behind the scenes, Pope Francis is working to keep abuse cases secret and play favorites with some priests who abuse children.

In an article published in The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty tells of a priest, Fr. Mauro Inzoli, dubbed “Don Mercedes” for flamboyant lifestyle. Inzoli was accused of sexual abusing children and was defrocked by Pope Benedict in 2012. In 2014, Pope Francis restored Inzoli to the priesthood after some of Inzoli’s cardinal benefactors came to Inzoli’s aid. Cardinal Coccopalmerio and Monsignor Pio Vito Pinto, now dean of the Roman Rota, both intervened on behalf of Inzoli.

This injustice didn’t escape the notice of secular authorities who slammed the church for their duplicity. Dougherty writes:

This summer, civil authorities finished their own trial of Inzoli, convicting him of eight offenses. Another 15 lay beyond the statute of limitations. The Italian press hammered the Vatican, specifically the CDF, for not sharing the information they had found in their canonical trial with civil authorities. Of course, the pope himself could have allowed the CDF to share this information with civil authorities if he so desired.

According to the same article, the Pope deals with sex abuse cases in a personal fashion, punishing his detractors or those who don’t have powerful benefactors, while ignoring or reinstating wayward priests who have friends in high places. If this reminds you of Niccolò Machiavelli and his relationship with the papacy, perhaps it should. Machiavelli used his political prowess and cunning to get what he wanted by punishing enemies and helping further the ecclesiastical careers of those in his favor. The article suggests this is exactly what Francis is doing with clerical sex abuse cases.

Dougherty concludes by writing:

It’s astonishing that after giving in to requests for intervention by Coccopalmerio and Pinto — requests which were unjust and humiliating — the pope would proceed to give authority over some child abuse cases to Pinto. But perhaps that isn’t the first thing on his mind. Doing so would reward one of Pope Francis’ friends and humiliate someone he sees as an antagonist.

The veteran church reporter John Allen recently noted in Crux that Pope Francis doesn’t always take the direct approach when trying to kneecap his critics within the church, or the obstacles to his reform in the Vatican. Sometimes, he goes around them. Allen wrote that “it means formally keeping people in place while entrusting the real responsibility to somebody else and thus rendering the original official, if not quite irrelevant, certainly less consequential.”

In this Pope we have a master communicator who knows how to offer the right sound bite and the perfect photo-op. When the surface is scratched, the picture isn’t so pretty. In his own column on the scandal, Rod Dreher offers us some salient advice, “As ever with church leaders who talk about reform, don’t listen to what they say, but rather watch what they do.”


Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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