Pope Francis begins an important Roman synod with his approval numbers among American Catholics tanking. From the Pew Research Center:

As allegations and investigations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church become more widespread, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that confidence in the way Pope Francis is handling the crisis has plummeted among U.S. Catholics. Just three-in-ten Catholic adults say Francis is doing an “excellent” or a “good” job addressing the issue, which is down 24 points since 2015 and 14 points from when Pew Research Center last asked the question in January of this year.

While seven-in-ten American Catholics say their overall opinion of Pope Francis is favorable, six-in-ten now say he is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job handling the sex abuse scandal, including 36% who say his efforts on this front have been poor. This is nearly double the share who said he was doing a poor job at the beginning of this year, and triple the share who said this in 2015.

The declining confidence in Francis’ handling of the sex abuse crisis is broad-based, occurring across a wide variety of subgroups of U.S. Catholics. Since 2015, for instance, the share who give the pope “excellent” or “good” ratings for his handling of the issue declined by 24 points among Catholic men and 23 points among Catholic women. Similarly, both younger and older Catholics have grown increasingly critical of the pontiff’s handling of the situation.

When I was in Italy last month, it seemed clear that a defensive narrative had solidified around Pope Francis and within the Curia, claiming that the abuse scandal was an invention of right-wing American Catholics. Therefore, to leave the Viganò allegations unaddressed was not to fall into a political trap (according to this reading). It’s transparently self-serving, and does not explain the emerging sex, and sex-abuse, scandals in Honduras, Chile, Argentina, the Netherlands, and Germany. But that’s the Pope’s story, and he’s sticking to it.

So are his allies. Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer, has been tweeting out things like this:

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The story Ivereigh links to is actually quite interesting. It’s not what Ivereigh says it is (an attempt to “unseat Francis”), but it’s still pretty dramatic. Excerpts from The Tablet story:

A US-based Catholic think tank is seeking more than a million dollars to compile dossiers on individual cardinals in a bid to prevent a repeat of the 2013 conclave which elected Pope Francis.

The group “Better Church Governance” has hired ex-FBI investigators and academics to give each cardinal-elector a “classification” on how they have handled “abuse and corruption” in what they argue is an attempt by ordinary faithful to hold the hierarchy to account.

But the organisers of “The Red Hat Report” initiative are also planning to delve into cardinals’ sexual orientation and edit Wikipedia entries to link them to scandals, in the hope of tarnishing their reputations in advance of a future conclave.

“Cardinals need to be held accountable publicly so there has to be some sort of culture of shame,” Jacob Imam, the Better Church Governance’s Operations Director, explained at a launch event on Sunday at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC in an audio recording of the event that has been shared with The Tablet.

“They know if they vote for this person, that inevitably their own congregation the people that they shepherd, the pastors will know about it.”

Crux adds:

Imam said that report revealed that local individuals were aware of ongoing abuse and cover-up, hence the Red Project Report will seek to, whenever possible, carry out its research where each cardinal is based.

He went on to describe the two-fold purpose of their report: to provide information to every cardinal in hopes of better informing them about their fellow papal-electors, as well as to make the information available publicly so that lay Catholics can have access to it.

“Cardinals need to be held accountable publicly, so there has to be some sort of culture of shame,” he said. “They know if they vote for this person…the people that they shepherd, and their pastors, will know about it.”

“This is difficult. There is a dark side to this decision. We recognize that,” he added. “We are willing to take this on with prayer and fasting…because we can’t allow people to continue to allow our kids, the innocent, the young, seminarians to be devoured the ways that they are.”

Imam also said that 10 former FBI agents are involved in the investigation, with two individuals being the agency’s former lead investigators on ecclesiastic matters.

It’s extremely distasteful to think about Catholics paying private investigators to come up with dirt on cardinals. On the other hand, what is the alternative, given that the incontestable evidence shows that the bishops are incapable of governing themselves, and seeing to it that the morally unfit are not given red hats? Is it really the case that the Catholic faithful don’t need to know whether the cardinals who are voting on the next pope, and one of whom will be the next pope, is compromised, either by the way he has handled sex abuse in his archdiocese, or by his personal behavior?

Like it or not, this is the kind of hardball tactic that’s here to stay in the age of transparency. Yesterday, I gave a talk to a communications class at LSU. Most of the students in the class were Catholic. A couple of them who went to a prestigious Catholic girls’ school in Baton Rouge said that nobody at their school ever talked to the students about the abuse scandal. It was as if it never had happened. When the group discussed what they would like to see from the Church in terms of reform, they firmly agreed: “Transparency.”

What is the alternative to what the Red Hat Report Catholics are doing? I’m not asking rhetorically; I mean it. In 1985, a copy of the confidential Doyle-Mouton Report  went to every US bishop. It detailed the clergy sex abuse problem, and warned them all explicitly that they had better clean it up, or it was going to be a disaster for the Catholic Church.

The report was ignored. Thirty-three years have passed, and now we find that the Catholic bishops — including the Bishop of Rome — have lost most of their credibility on the issue. Theodore McCarrick received his red hat despite evidence that some in the Vatican knew of his homosexual predation on seminarians. McCarrick remained publicly a cardinal in good standing, even under Benedict XVI, who apparently tried feebly to restrict him. And he was restored under Pope Francis.

What are faithful Catholics supposed to do, when faced with an episcopate that is so corrupt as a body, and incapable of reforming itself?

If you don’t like what the Red Hat Report Catholics are trying to do, what’s your better plan? “Trust the bishops to fix this” is a non-starter.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the group clarifies that it won’t look into whether or not cardinals have a homosexual orientation. It only cares about documenting if they have been sexually active.

Also, Father Martin Fox comments:

At this point, I am more and more in favor of something like this. Something needs to get our bishops to take this seriously and stop being so self-absorbed and, well, clerical.

The twist to all this is that every single one of these hierarchs who are stonewalling — every single one of them — will go on and on and on about Vatican II, and how important it was, and how everyone needs to get with the program, so on and so forth.

OK, well, one of the salient messages of Vatican II was empowering the laity; have them live out the full meaning of their baptism. Everyone is part of the Church. So we had pastoral councils and finance councils at the parish and diocesan level. On and on.

These folks are all for it — till the laity really do step up and speak up. Then what do we hear? “I will not say one word” and a lot of harumphing and it’s all a plot and how dare you.