By Joon Lee
On October 13, Pope Francis defrocked two Chilean priests — Francisco José Cox Huneeus and Marco Antonio Órdenes Fernández — for “manifest abuse of minors,” formally removing them from the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. The decision to defrock the two former priests via papal decree is, with the exception of the defrocking of Fernando Karadima for similar crimes of sexual abuse earlier this year, without precedent in the history of the Catholic Church.
An optimistic reading of the Pope’s direct involvement in these defrockings would be that they represent a form of signaling — that the Catholic Church will more effectively attempt to eradicate, rather than cover up and let fester, the staggeringly widespread problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Unfortunately, the context of the announcement suggests that the Pope is merely playing a public relations game, rather than hinting at any strategic or executive shift. In the past decade, Chile became the first country in Latin America to transition from majority Catholic to majority non-Catholic, and public vitriol towards the Church is currently at a historic high.
Ironically, the source of much of that anger is mismanagement by Pope Francis himself, whose selection in 2013 was viewed by many as an attempt by the Church to strengthen its influence within an increasingly secular Latin America. In 2015, he appointed Juan Barros as Bishop of Osoro despite protests over credible (and now proven) allegations that he was actively involved in hiding the abuses of Father Fernando Karadima. Later, the Pope publicly dismissed those accusations as “all slander,” further enraging Chileans. Although Pope Francis apologized for having been “misled” this May, his reluctance to actively remove those complicit in sexual abuse has irreparably damaged his reputation in Chile. Given these circumstances, and the personal role Pope Francis played in accelerating Catholicism’s local decline, it is little wonder that the Vatican would take the drastic step of having the defrocking of Chilean priests occur via Papal decree.
The problem is that the mere defrocking of two priests does nothing to stop systematic sexual abuse, and consequently will also do nothing in the long term for the Church’s international standing. After all, between 2011 and 2012, 260 priests were quietly defrocked by the Vatican for sexual abuse. Two is already a miniscule number compared to 260 — which in of itself pales in comparison to the total number of priests engaged in sexual misconduct (one internal report found 300 “predator priests” in Pennsylvania alone). Multiple serious changes at the institutional level — likely involving unprecedented transparency in the Vatican, a more consistent and severe system of punishment for those guilty of abuse, and stronger background checks for those entering the priesthood—would be required to meaningfully combat systematic sexual abuse. And as long as reports of sexual abuse keep surfacing, the popularity of the Church in not just Chile, but all of Latin America, will inevitably slowly die out.
From a statistical perspective, we can already see that trend taking shape. While nearly 90 percent of Latin Americans identified as Catholic in 1990, that number is now less than 60 percent. Some of the decline is attributable to an increasing Protestant presence in South America, and the trend itself is not surprising in the face of the historically high secularity of younger generations (millennials, Gen Z) worldwide. The extent and rate of decline, however, cannot be solely explained by generational factors. What is increasingly driving Latin Americans to disavow Catholicism today is a deeply rooted mistrust of the institution of the Church itself. What should merely be a crisis of faith has become a crisis of trust, and that is a problem no papal decree can easily solve.
Joon is a first-year in Branford. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.