Pope’s Future Sparks Debate, Resignation Seems Unlikely

In this file photo, Pope Francis presides over the Way of The Cross on Good Friday, April 15, 2022, at the Colosseum monument in Rome. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)


Pope Francis has fuelled the rumour mill with a postponed Africa trip and the curious timing of an upcoming meeting of cardinals — but experts caution against assuming a resignation is nigh.

Hobbled by pain in his knee and forced to use a wheelchair in recent weeks, the 85-year-old pontiff postponed a July trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan last week.

That move, along with an unusual decision to hold a consistory to name new cardinals during the vacation month of August, triggered intense speculation about his plans for the future, including the most radical — that he was planning to step down.

Not so fast, many say.

“In the pope’s entourage, the majority of people don’t really believe in the possibility of a resignation,” a Vatican source told AFP.

Rumours within the insular Roman Curia — the Catholic Church’s powerful governing body — are nothing new, and often fuelled by those with an interest, said Italian Vatican expert Marco Politi.

“These rumours are encouraged by the pope’s opponents who are only eager to see Francis leave,” he told AFP.

Door To Retired Popes

The resignation of a pope was once almost unthinkable. But when Benedict XVI stood down in 2013, citing his declining physical and mental health, he set a precedent.

In 2014, a year after being elected to replace Benedict, Francis himself told reporters that were his health to impede his functions as pope, he would consider stepping down too.

“He (Benedict) opened a door, the door to retired popes,” the pontiff said then.

More recently in May, as reported by various Italian media, Francis joked about his knee during a closed-door meeting with bishops: “Rather than operate, I’ll resign.”

However, a trip to Canada at the end of July is still on the pontiff’s schedule, and the pope continues to receive injections in his knee and physical therapy, according to the Vatican.

As a child, Francis had one of his lungs partially removed. Today, besides his knee issue, he suffers recurring sciatic nerve pain.

Rumours of a resignation also flared last year after Francis underwent colon surgery, prompting him to tell a Spanish radio station that the idea “hadn’t even crossed my mind”.

But beyond his health, a series of calendared events in upcoming months have some Vatican watchers questioning whether Francis is laying the groundwork for retirement while ensuring that his reforms stay intact.

Convening Cardinals

First was his decision to call an extraordinary consistory for August 27, a slow summer month at the Vatican, to create 21 new cardinals — 16 of whom will be under the age of 80, thereby eligible to elect his successor in a future conclave.

Since becoming pope in 2013, the Argentine pontiff has created 83 cardinals in a move to shape the future of the Catholic Church, in part to counter Europe’s historically dominant influence, and to reflect his values.

On August 28, Francis will pay a visit to L’Aquila and the tomb of Celestine V — the first pope to have resigned from the papacy, in the 13th century.

He then joins the world’s cardinals — many of them meeting their peers for the first time — in two days of discussions over the reform of the Roman Curia, which Francis announced in March with the unveiling of a new constitution.

Francis’ shake-up of the Roman Curia attempts to shift the Church back towards its pastoral roots, allows lay Catholics to head Vatican departments and creates a dicastery specifically for charity works among other reforms.

Could the August calendar be taken as a hint, as some in the media have suggested?

“At this stage, it is a question of being realistic and not alarmist,” Politi cautioned.

He said it was “hard to imagine” Francis would resign while the Synod of Bishops — an initiative meaningful to Francis that is intended to study how the Church moves forward in a more inclusive way — is ongoing, due to complete in 2023.

Alberto Melloni, a professor of Christianity and secretary of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences in Bologna, told AFP “preposterous” conjectures had been made about the pope’s health and his intentions.

“These are things in which there is a desire to understand, to speculate, but there is little to say,” he said.


Ety Cicioni: Master Tailor To The Pope’s Swiss Guards 

A Swiss Guard recruit (R) holds the Swiss Guard flag as he swears in during a ceremony for new recruits of the pontifical Swiss Guard on May 6, 2022 at Paul-VI hall in The Vatican. Andreas SOLARO / AFP


Under the watchful gaze of former popes in framed photographs hanging on the walls, tailor Ety Cicioni races to stitch the brightly coloured uniforms for pontifical Swiss Guard recruits ahead of their swearing-in ceremony.

“Twenty-five years ago it seemed almost impossible, but you end up knowing how to do it by heart,” Cicioni told AFP at his workshop in the barracks of the world’s oldest army, right in the heart of the Vatican.

“Despite the number of pieces, it’s like a mosaic that I put together automatically,” the balding 50-year-old said, as he slipped a piece of coloured fabric under the needle of his sewing machine.

Cicioni, armed with scissors, navigates between ironing boards, wooden racks bearing spools of thread, and an overhead rail with freshly made jackets and pantaloons.

In recent weeks, visits for fittings have multiplied.

READ ALSO: Pope Wants To Meet Putin, Compares Ukraine War To Rwanda

Everything must be ready for the swearing-in ceremony on Friday, during which some 30 Swiss citizens, who have to be single, Catholic and aged between 19 and 30 years old, will commit to safeguarding the pope for at least 26 months.

“From the arrival of the new recruits, we only have one month to make the uniform before they start their service,” says Cicioni, who has only three fellow tailors to help make three outfits for each guard.

The uniforms are striped in red, yellow and blue, and they get one for winter, one for summer and one for night.

Each set, with its gaiters, pantaloons and jacket with white collar, is made from fabric that comes from the town of Bielle in Piedmont in northwest Italy, which is renowned for the quality of its textiles.

Putting together the 154 pieces takes some 39 hours of painstaking work.

 Buried With It 

A Swiss Guard recruit (C-R) holds the Swiss Guard flag as he swears in during a ceremony for new recruits of the pontifical Swiss Guard on May 6, 2022 at Paul-VI hall in The Vatican. Andreas SOLARO / AFP


On top of that “there are also the everyday things,” Cicioni says.

“A guard who has a tear, a button to sew back on, a broken hook: we also take care of these little emergencies,” he jokes.

The halberdiers’ uniform, immortalised by snap-happy tourists from all over the world, has evolved since the creation of the Swiss Guard in 1506 by Pope Julius II, featuring sometimes more red or more black.

The current model, redesigned by the Swiss colonel Jules Repond, dates from 1914.

Donning the Renaissance-style garment can be a challenge.

“At first, it takes them 15 or 20 minutes to get dressed. There are so many buttons they don’t know how to do up,” Cicioni says with a chuckle.

He began making the uniforms in 1997 under pope John Paul II, and stresses the patience and technical skill needed.

“We are trying to modernise the process because, of course, techniques change and everyone brings their own something to it,” says Cicioni, who has a measuring tape draped over the elegant suit and tie he wears to his workshop every day.

After a long day crafting puff shoulders and fixing zips, he would see the young guards socially.

“When I arrived, we used to go out together. The relationship has changed now, but there is a great deal of respect,” he said, praising the “sacrifice” that their commitment represents.

When they leave, the guards must return their uniforms, unless they have served for more than five years.

“In that case, they can take it with them, but they do not own them. After death, the uniforms must be returned, or be placed with the deceased in his coffin,” he said.


Pope Renews Call For Easter Truce In Ukraine

Pope Francis waves to the crowd during his Regina Coeli prayer from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square on April 24, 2022, at the Vatican. VINCENZO PINTO / AFP


Pope Francis on Sunday appealed again for a truce in war-torn Ukraine over the Orthodox Easter weekend, “to ease the suffering of exhausted people”.

The blue and yellow flag of Ukraine flew among the faithful gathered on St Peter’s Square, where the leader of the Roman Catholic Church recalled that fighting erupted two months ago on February 24.

“Instead of halting, the war has become worse,” Francis said.

“It is sad that on these most holy and solemn days for Christians we hear more of the murderous noise of weapons than that of the bells announcing the resurrection” of Christ.

“I renew the appeal for an Easter truce, the smallest tangible sign of a willingness for peace,” he pleaded.

“Stop the attacks to ease the suffering of exhausted people,” the pope added, with both Russians and Ukrainians celebrating Orthodox Easter this Sunday.

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UN Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called on Sunday for an “immediate stop” to fighting in Mariupol to allow the evacuation of trapped civilians in the battered port city almost all of which is now under Russian control.

On Palm Sunday, April 10, the pope had called for an Easter truce leading “to peace through veritable negotiations”.

On Thursday he backed UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ own appeal for an end to the fighting.


Palm Sunday: Pope Calls For ‘Easter Ceasefire’ In Ukraine 

Pope Francis blesses the faithful at the end of the Palm Sunday mass in St. Peter square, at the Vatican on April 10, 2022.  Vincenzo PINTO / AFP


Pope Francis on Sunday called for an Easter ceasefire in Ukraine to pave the way for peace through “real negotiation”.

“Let the Easter truce begin. But not to provide more weapons and pick up the combat again — no! — a truce that will lead to peace, through real negotiation,” he told a public mass at Saint Peter’s Square.

The pontiff denounced a war where “defenceless civilians” suffered “heinous massacres and atrocious cruelty”.

“What victory is there in planting a flag on a pile of rubble?” he asked.

Francis on Wednesday had already condemned the targeting of civilians in Ukraine, calling the discovery of bodies in Bucha near Kyiv a “massacre” and embracing a Ukrainian flag from the “martyred town”.

READ ALSO: Ukraine War Pushes World Food Prices To Record High

Pope Francis leads the Palm Sunday Mass, in St. Peter’s Square at The Vatican on April 10, 2022. Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP


He has also expressed his willingness to contribute to halting the fighting in Ukraine and said he would be ready to travel to Kyiv.

Russia has denied responsibility for the apparent killings of civilians in Bucha, accusing Ukraine of staging them. Moscow has not provided any evidence to back up its claim.


Pope Evokes Malta’s Welcome Of St Paul In Migrant Appeal

Pope Francis celebrates the New Year's day mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on January 1, 2022. Tiziana FABI / AFP
File photo: Pope Francis celebrates the New Year’s day mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on January 1, 2022. Tiziana FABI / AFP


Pope Francis visited the grotto Sunday where St. Paul lived after washing up on Malta, recalling the welcome the Apostle received and urging better treatment of modern day arrivals on the Mediterranean island.

On the final day of his weekend trip to Malta, the 85-year-old pontiff will also hold open-air mass before visiting a migrant centre that will soon host refugees from the Ukraine war.

According to Christian tradition, Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD while en route to Rome, and performed several miracles in his three months there.

Following in the footsteps of former popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis visited the holy grotto in Rabat, lighting a candle and saying a prayer.

He recalled how Paul and his fellow travellers were welcomed, even though “no one knew their names, their place of birth or their social status”.

He called on God to “help us to recognise from afar those in need, struggling amidst the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores” and grant that “our compassion be more than empty words”.

The pope, who last summer underwent colon surgery and cancelled an event in February due to acute knee pain, appeared to have trouble walking during the visit, where he also met the sick and disabled at the connected Basilica of St. Paul.

– Safe harbour –

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has overshadowed the pope’s first trip to Catholic-majority Malta, a voyage delayed two years by coronavirus.

Addressing politicians and diplomats on Saturday, he warned that “some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts” in a thinly veiled accusation against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Asked by a reporter about a possible trip to Kyiv, he said a visit to Ukraine’s capital was “on the table”.

The war has caused the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, which feeds into a key theme of Francis’ nine-year papacy — the need to welcome those fleeing war, poverty or the effects of climate change.

Malta is on the frontline of the route from North Africa into Europe and thousands of people who risked the crossing in overcrowded boats have ended up here.

But charity groups have accused Malta of turning a blind eye to desperate people in its waters, and the pope on Saturday reminded the archipelago of its status as a “safe harbour”, while adding that other countries must also step in.

“The growing migration emergency — here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine — calls for a broad-based and shared response,” he said.

– ‘Very tired’ –

After visiting the grotto, the pope headed to Floriana, near the capital Valletta, where he was set to conduct mass for a 10,000-strong crowd of followers.

Awaiting him among the crowd was 67-year-old Anna Balzan from the nearby city of Qormi and her extended family. Over her shoulders was draped a Vatican flag she purchased during John Paul II’s visit in 1990.

“I’ve seen Benedict and John Paul when they came to Malta,” she said, expressing concern for the current pope’s health.

“I saw him as very tired yesterday… I think he is suffering.”

Later Sunday, Francis will return to the theme of migrants by visiting the John XXIII Peace Lab, a centre inspired by the pope of that name, which is preparing for the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.

Run for the past five decades by a Franciscan friar, now 91, it already hosts around 55 young men from different parts of Africa who arrived on Malta without any legal papers.


Ex-Pope Benedict XVI Asks For Forgiveness Over Sex Abuse Scandal

In this file photo taken on February 14, 2015 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attends a papal consistory for the creation of new Cardinals at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican. Andreas SOLARO / AFP
In this file photo taken on February 14, 2015 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI attends a papal consistory for the creation of new Cardinals at St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican. Andreas SOLARO / AFP


Ex-pope Benedict XVI asked for forgiveness Tuesday for clerical child sex abuse committed on his watch, but aides rejected allegations of a cover-up while he was archbishop of Munich.

“I can only express to all the victims of sexual abuse my profound shame, my deep sorrow and my heartfelt request for forgiveness,” the 94-year-old said in a letter published by the Vatican.

The letter from the former pontiff — who stepped down in 2013 — was released in response to a German inquiry last month that criticised his handling of cases involving paedophile priests in the 1980s.

“I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and the errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate,” he wrote.

However, organisations representing abuse victims criticised the lack of specifics in his comments.

German group Eckiger Tisch said Benedict continued a Catholic Church tradition of declaring that “there were acts and faults, but no one takes concrete responsibility”.

Last month’s German investigation accused the former pope of knowingly failing to stop four priests accused of child sex abuse when he was archbishop of Munich between 1977 and 1982.

Benedict, who is in frail health, asked a team of aides to help him respond to the lengthy findings by law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl (WSW), charged by the archdiocese of Munich and Freising to examine abuse between 1945 and 2019.

The aides insisted in an accompanying statement Tuesday that “as an archbishop, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up of acts of abuse”, using the pope’s birth name, Joseph Ratzinger.

Not Aware

In one case, a now-notorious paedophile priest named Peter Hullermann was transferred to Munich from Essen in western Germany where he had been accused of abusing an 11-year-old boy.

Benedict’s team has already admitted to unintentionally giving incorrect information to the report authors when they denied his attendance at a meeting about Hullermann in 1980.

But they denied any decision had been taken at that meeting about reassigning the priest to pastoral duties, and on Tuesday said the abuse had not been discussed.

“In none of the cases analysed by the expert report was Joseph Ratzinger aware of sexual abuse committed or suspicion of sexual abuse committed by priests. The expert report provides no evidence to the contrary,” the statement said.

In his letter, Benedict expressed hurt that the “oversight” over his attendance at the 1980 meeting “was used to cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar”.

Benedict, who lives in a former monastery within the Vatican walls, said he was grateful “for the confidence, support and prayer that Pope Francis personally expressed to me”.

Francis has said nothing in public although the Vatican defended Benedict last month, noting his meetings with abuse victims and introduction of laws to combat paedophilia.

Fear and Trembling

Before becoming pope, Benedict led the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, giving him ultimate responsibility to investigate abuse cases.

In his letter, he spoke of “confession”, saying that every day, he asked himself whether he was guilty of “a most grievous fault”, using the phrase said during confession at Mass.

“In all my meetings… with victims of sexual abuse by priests, I have seen at first hand the effects of a most grievous fault,” he wrote.

“I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with the necessary decisiveness and responsibility, as too often happened and continues to happen.”

But his comments fell short of what the SNAP survivors network said was required.

“The opportunity for cleansing (that) the report out of Munich offered has been squandered,” it said, condemning Benedict’s “lack of candour”.

Benedict finished his letter observing that “quite soon, I shall find myself before the final judge of my life”.

“As I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling,” he wrote.

But he was nevertheless “of good cheer” as he prepared to “pass confidently through the dark door of death”.

‘God Rejects You’: Man Disrupts Pope’s Speech At Vatican

Pope Francis speaks during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on February 2, 2022. Tiziana FABI / AFP


A shouting man denouncing the Church disrupted an audience by Pope Francis at the Vatican Wednesday, before being escorted outside by police.

“The Church is not the way God wants it,” the man repeated in English, as he stood in the back of the audience hall holding his mask in his hand and gesticulating.

The man, who also spoke in Spanish and Italian, appeared distraught and concerned as he implored the pope: “Please.”

While being led out of the hall by two Vatican police and a Swiss Guard without resisting, the man yelled, “God rejects you, Father. You’re not a king”.

READ ALSO: Pope ‘Concerned’ Over Ukraine, Risk To European Security

The disturbance came near the end of Francis’ weekly general audience with the faithful in the large Paul VI hall.

The 85-year-old pope, who had continued to deliver his address during the shouting, asked the audience to pray for the man.

“We heard, a few minutes ago, a person who was yelling, scolding, who had a problem — I don’t know if it’s physical, psychic, or spiritual, but it’s one of our brothers, in difficulty,” said the pontiff.

“I would like to conclude by praying for him, our brother who suffers. Poor man, he’s shouting because he’s suffering.”

“Let’s not be deaf to the needs of this brother”.


Pope ‘Concerned’ Over Ukraine, Risk To European Security

Pope Francis celebrates the New Year's day mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on January 1, 2022. Tiziana FABI / AFP
File Photo: Pope Francis celebrates the New Year’s day mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on January 1, 2022. Tiziana FABI / AFP


Pope Francis said Sunday he was following “with concern” rising tensions in Ukraine, and called for a day of prayer for peace next week.

“I am following with concern the rising tensions that threaten to inflict a new blow to peace in Ukraine, and call into question the security of the European continent, with even wider repercussions,” he said following his Sunday Angelus prayer on St Peter’s Square.

He called for prayers “that every political action and initiative serve human brotherhood, rather than partisan interests”.

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“Whoever pursues his own goals to the detriment of others disregards his own vocation as man, because we have all been created brothers,” the pontiff said.

“For this reason and with concern, given the current tensions, I propose that next Wednesday 26 January be a day of prayer for peace.”

Tensions between Moscow and Washington are on a knife’s edge over Ukraine, which Europe and the United States has said has been surrounded by some 100,000 Russian troops in preparation for an invasion. Moscow denies it plans to invade.

Pope Sends Money For Migrants On Poland-Belarus Border

Pope Francis holds his general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on January 5, 2022 (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)


Pope Francis has pledged 100,000 euros ($114,000) to help migrants blocked on the border between Poland and Belarus, the Vatican announced Tuesday.

The money includes support for the Catholic charity Caritas Poland “to deal with the migration emergency on the border between the two countries”, it said.

Since last summer, thousands of migrants — most of them from the Middle East, including war-torn Syria — have crossed or attempted to cross the Polish frontier from Belarus and enter the European Union.

READ ALSO: China Orders Overseas Mail Disinfection Over Omicron Fears

The pope has made defending migrants a priority of his papacy, and has repeatedly called on EU leaders to be more welcoming to those arriving at its borders.

The Vatican said the pope had also pledged 100,000 euros for relief efforts in the Philippines, following the typhoon in December.

COVID-19: Pope Francis Calls For ‘Reality Therapy’ For Anti-Vaxxers

Pope Francis holds his general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on January 5, 2022 (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)


Pope Francis on Monday urged the international community to step up Covid vaccination and said “reality therapy” was needed to battle “baseless information” putting people off getting jabbed.

The Argentine pontiff, who has previously described getting vaccinated as “an act of love”, urged governments to ensure everyone around the world had access to vaccines.

“Frequently people let themselves be influenced by the ideology of the moment, often bolstered by baseless information or poorly documented facts,” he told members of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

READ ALSO: India Begins Booster Campaign As Omicron Cases Soar 

“The pandemic, on the other hand, urges us to adopt a sort of ‘reality therapy’ that makes us confront the problem head on and adopt suitable remedies to resolve it,” the 85-year old said.

While vaccines were “not a magical means of healing” they were “surely… the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease,” Francis said.

But he pointed out the plan for everyone in the world to have equal access to vaccines currently remained “an illusion”.

Biden To Meet Pope Francis Ahead Of G20 Summit

A photo combination of President Biden and Pope Francis.


As world leaders flock to Rome for the G20 summit, President Joe Biden kicks off a trip aimed at reasserting US international credentials, starting at a meeting Friday with Catholic ally Pope Francis.

The president left Washington with a spring in his step after unveiling a “historic” framework for a vast social spending plan — although it remains to be seen if it can win the support of lawmakers.

After weeks of internal party feuding, and with his personal ratings slumping, Biden wants to use the twin summits in Europe this week — the G20 and UN climate talks in Glasgow — to prove his political clout.

He sees himself as the spokesman for democracy in the face of authoritarian regimes, notably China.

But he opens the trip on a more intimate note, having landed early Friday in Rome, he will head first to the Vatican, for what is expected to be a largely good-humoured sit-down with Pope Francis.

Only the second ever Catholic president, Biden is open about his faith and almost never misses Sunday mass.

He has met the head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics three times already, but this will be their first since the 78-year old was elected president.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday the White House expects the talks to be “warm”.

Biden has spoken of the strength he drew from his faith faced with a series of bereavements — after his first wife and their daughter were killed in a car accident, and his son Beau later died of cancer.

He and the pope share a range of concerns, from poverty to climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

But there is potential for a falling out should either leader raise the red-button issue of abortion.

Biden supports the right to choose, while Francis, 84, has slammed terminating pregnancies as “murder”.

The pontiff has nonetheless distanced himself from a push by conservative US bishops to deny communion to politicians supportive of abortion rights — which would include Biden.

READ ALSO: Biden Announces $1.75 Trillion US Spending Deal Ahead Of Europe Trip

 Charm offensive 

US President Joe Biden (2nd L) and US First Lady Jill Biden (C) arrive at Rome Fiumicino International Airport, early on October 29, 2021, in Rome, Italy.  Brendan Smialowski / AFP


After Francis, Biden crosses the Tiber into the heart of the Eternal City to meet Prime Minister Mario Draghi — the man, dubbed “Super Mario”, tasked with reforming Italy after the devastation of Covid-19.

The G20 host, a former head of the European Central Bank famous for his efforts to save the euro from collapse, is being closely watched in Washington for his plans to set debt-laden and politically fractious Italy back on track.

But while Draghi is the new star of European politics, Biden seems to have lost some of his shine.

The president, who appears confident his $1.75 trillion social spending plan is in the bag, hopes to use the G20 and the COP26 climate summit to show the world “America is back”.

He will doubtless boast about the package including “the most significant investment to deal with the climate crisis ever” — 550 billion dollars to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The veteran foreign policy expert is determined to distance himself from the unilateralism of ex-president Donald Trump, and will be seeking to soothe ruffled feathers.

He will also have some fence-mending to do after a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which irritated US allies, and a major spat over nuclear-powered submarines.

He may need to reserve his biggest charm offensive for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is he due to meet on Friday for the first time since the subs row.

Paris was furious after Australia ditched a major deal to buy French submarines last month, saying it was negotiating a new defence pact with the US and Britain.


French PM Meets Pope As Abuse Scandal Rages

This handout photo taken on October 18, 2021 and released by the Vatican press office, the Vatican Media, shows Pope Francis (L) meets with French Prime Minister Jean Castex during the private audience at the Vatican. (Photo by VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)


French Prime Minister Jean Castex met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday as the French Catholic Church battles a storm over clerical child sex abuse and the sanctity of confession.

The long-planned trip to Rome, which includes talks with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, follows the publication of a devastating report estimating that French Catholic clergy had abused 216,000 children since 1950.

Francis, who has made battling the global scourge of clerical abuse a priority of his papacy, expressed “my shame, our shame” at the findings, echoing a similar sentiment from French church leaders.

READ ALSO: Afghan Girls Still Barred From School

But a row broke out when Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, the head of the Bishops’ Conference of France, said priests were not obliged to report sexual abuse if they heard about it during the Catholic ritual of confession, used to admit to sins.

Moulins-Beaufort’s words were in line with Vatican guidelines updated last year, which call on clerics to report claims of abuse.

But they say confession is subject to “the strictest bond of the sacramental seal”, while adding the confessor should try to convince the penitent to tell someone else.

Yet in France, victims’ advocates pointed out that French law recognises professional confidentiality for priests, but it does not apply in potentially criminal cases involving violence or sexual assault against minors.

After his meeting at the Vatican, Castex told reporters that the pope had said the French church had been “courageous” in dealing with the issue.

“He trusts the Church in France to draw conclusions. He is pleased there has been no denial,” the premier said.


This handout photo taken on October 18, 2021 and released by the Vatican press office, the Vatican Media, shows Pope Francis (C – R) pose with French Prime Minister Jean Castex (C – L) and French delegation during the private audience at the Vatican. (Photo by VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)


“The Church will not go back on the dogma of the secret of the confession. But we must at all costs finds ways and means to reconcile this with criminal law, the rights of victims,” Castex added.

“He is fully aware of this. It’s a long-term job.”

Moulins-Beaufort was called to a meeting with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, and later insisted that protecting children was “an absolute priority”.

Darmanin accompanied Castex and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to the Vatican, in the visit marking 100 years since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See.