In September 2018, Pope Francis said in a homily that "the Great Accuser" (a Biblical name for Satan) was working to "attack bishops" and "uncover their sins" so as to "scandalize the people." Francis delivered the homily at a time when the Vatican hierarchy (including he himself) is facing multiple allegations of covering up sexual abuse.
Pope Francis did not make a general pronouncement about efforts to expose child sexual abuse, but rather a much more ambiguous and enigmatic statement which left itself open to multiple interpretations.
In September 2018, Your News Wire — a website known for distorting and sensationalizing news stories, as well as publishing conspiracy theories — claimed that Pope Francis had described efforts to uncover child sexual abuse within the Catholic church as “Satan’s work.”
Under the headline “Pope Francis: Exposing Pedophile Priests is Satan’s Work,” the website reported that “Satan, the ‘Great Accuser,’ is influencing Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in his quest to expose pedophile priests within the Catholic Church, Pope Francis warned.”
The article then quoted large sections from an earlier report by the right-wing web site Breitbart, which itself wrote:
The former nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, recently accused a number of prelates of dereliction of duty in dealing with clerical sex abuse and claimed that the pope had rehabilitated serial abuser Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, elevating him to a position of influence despite knowledge of his misdeeds …
“The Great Accuser, as he himself tells God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, roams around the earth looking for someone to accuse,” Francis said in his morning homily at Mass in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence in the Vatican. In these times “it seems that the Great Accuser has been unleashed and has it in for the bishops,” the pope said.
“It is true, we are all sinners, we bishops,” he said, but the Great Accuser “seeks to unveil sins so that they may be seen, to scandalize the people.”
Pope Francis did indeed appear to suggest that Satan (i.e., “the Great Accuser”) was playing a role in ongoing allegations against senior figures within the Catholic hierarchy, potentially including himself, although the identity of the “accuser” he had in mind was not clear.
Vatican News (an official communications organ of the Holy See) reported on the pontiff’s 11 September homily as follows:
In his homily at Mass on Tuesday morning, Pope Francis said it seems the “Great Accuser” is attacking the bishops of the Catholic Church to create scandal …
“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”
Francis again referred to the “Great Accuser” in his homily on 13 September, as Vatican News reported:
It is certainly easy to “badmouth enemies or those who are of a different party,” but Christian logic goes against the current, and follows the “folly of the Cross.” The ultimate goal, Pope Francis added, “is to get to the point where we behave ourselves like children of our Father”:
“Only the merciful are like God the Father. ‘Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.’ This is the path, the path that goes against the spirit of the world, that thinks differently, that does not accuse others. Because among us is the “Great Accuser,” the one who is always going about to accuse us before God, to destroy. Satan: he is the “Great Accuser.” And when I enter into this logic of accusing, of cursing, seeking to do evil to others, I enter into the logic of the “Great Accuser” who is the “Destroyer,” who does not know the word mercy, does not know, has never lived it.”
Francis did not identify any particular accuser or enemy, and there are a couple of reasonable interpretations of what he meant by the “Great Accuser.” Pope Francis could have been referring to Pennsylvania authorities (including state attorney general Josh Shapiro) behind the publication of a scathing 1,400-page report in mid-August which documented the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by Catholic clergy over a period of several decades, as well as the covering up of that abuse.
If so, the “Great Accuser” homily would represent a jarring change in tone from the Vatican’s initially contrite reaction to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which saw the head of the Holy See press office write that:
The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the Church and in all of society.
Victims should know that the Pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.
However, Francis could (more plausibly) have been responding to attacks made against him personally by Archbishop Viganò, as outlined by Breitbart.
On 26 August, as Pope Francis was concluding a high-profile and important visit to Ireland, Viganò (who was Apostolic Nuncio to the United States from 2011 to 2016) published an eleven-page letter containing multiple detailed allegations against members of the Vatican hierarchy, including Francis himself, of whom Viganò is a long-standing critic.
As the New York Times reported of that letter:
Archbishop Viganò claimed that the Vatican hierarchy was complicit in covering up accusations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians and that Pope Francis knew about the abuses by the now-disgraced American prelate years before they became public. Yet, the letter contended, Francis did not punish the cardinal, but instead empowered him to help choose powerful American bishops.
In a news conference on the papal plane back to Rome late Sunday evening, Francis was asked whether there was any truth to the claim that Archbishop Viganò had personally informed him in 2013 of Cardinal McCarrick’s history of abuse. He was also asked whether Benedict had sanctioned the American cardinal, as the letter also claimed.
The pope did not deny it, but sidestepped the questions by insisting he would not dignify them with a response. “I will not say a single word about this,” he said. “I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the sufficient journalistic ability to make your conclusions. It’s an act of trust.”
On 28 July, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Cardinal McCarrick, who had served as Archbishop of Washington and was a member of the College of Cardinals, the body that elects the pope.
Five weeks earlier, McCarrick had been removed from priestly ministry, in light of allegations of sexual abuse of a minor 45 years ago, which the Archdiocese of New York (the location of the alleged abuse) deemed to be “credible and substantiated.” At time of this publication, his canonical trial was pending.
Breitbart’s article (which was copied and pasted by Your News Wire) was largely accurate, although it did involve speculation that Francis was specifically alluding to Viganò’s allegations when he warned that the “Great Accuser” was “attacking bishops.” However, as we have outlined, this is a very reasonable interpretation of the pope’s intended meaning.
Contrary to Your News Wire’s headline, Pope Francis did not actually say “exposing pedophile priests is Satan’s work.” He made a somewhat enigmatic Biblical reference to Satan “attacking bishops” in order to “scandalize the people,” at a time when the hierarchy of the Catholic church, including Francis himself, was facing several allegations of covering up historical sexual abuse.
While the pope’s “Great Accuser” homily was ambiguous enough to leave itself open to multiple interpretations, it is more likely that it formed part of an ongoing battle between him and Cardinal Viganò (a strong critic of Francis), rather than an effort to demonize any and all efforts to uncover child sexual abuse within the Church.