Pope Francis says those who constantly criticise the Catholic Church are “friends of the Devil”. Seeing what some of the lads working for Jesus get up to, I’ll take that as a compliment, says Donal O’Keeffe.

Last week, the Pope told pilgrims from Southern Italy that, while the faults of the Church need to be denounced so they can be corrected, those who condemn the Church “without love” are “friends of the Devil”.

It’s worth pointing out that the Catholic Church has been harbouring child abusers since at least the 11th Century. In the year 1051, the Benedictine monk, Saint Peter Damian, wrote Liber Gomorrihanus (The Book of Gomorrah). In it, he railed against priests having sexual relationships with adolescent boys.

In his 1531 pamphlet Warnunge D. Martini Luther/ An seine lieben Deudschen, Martin Luther alleged that Pope Leo X had vetoed a measure to limit the number of boys Cardinals could keep in servitude for the purpose of sexual abuse. Not that the Cardinals should not abuse those children, mind you, just that they should keep the numbers of children they abuse down to a modest few. And, Luther claimed, the Pope was against it.

Pope Leo X’s 21st century successor, Jorje Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, hasn’t a great track record on tackling paedophilia in the Catholic Church either.

In January last year, Pope Francis accused victims of Chile’s most notorious child abuser of slander, saying that until he saw proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the crimes of Father Fernando Karadima, such claims were “all calumny”. He also claimed to have never heard victims’ accusations against Barros, despite having received in 2015 a letter from Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor of sexual abuse by Father Karadima, outlining Bishop Barros’ wrongdoing.

Four months later, the Pope apologised.

To be honest, Pope Francis has a bit of a habit of pretending not to know things it turns out he does know. Last year he claimed in Dublin that he was hearing for the very first time about Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, although Philomena Lee had told him her life story four years earlier.

I was in Tuam the Sunday Pope Francis had his poorly-attended Mass in the Phoenix Park. I stood beside Catherine Corless as RTÉ’s Eileen Magnier told Catherine the Pope had expressed his surprise and horror at the idea of Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.

Catherine responded quietly that this simply could not be true. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had told Catherine ages ago that he had briefed the Pope about Tuam, and Francis had been horrified. And yet, Francis was similarly shocked and upset to be told for the first time now. Again.  

The Pope’s rant about “friends of the Devil” last week was as spectacular, and it’s had the welcome side-effect of my being unable to get the Grateful Dead’s song “Friend of the Devil” out of my head.

It has now become “fashionable” for people to “destroy with the tongue” – behaviour akin to that of the “great accuser”, Francis claimed.

“One cannot live their whole life accusing, accusing, accusing the Church. Whose profession is it to accuse? Who is the ‘great accuser’ quoted in the Bible?

“Those who spend their lives accusing, accusing, accusing are – I won’t say the Devil’s children, because he doesn’t have any – but they are friends, cousins, relatives of the Devil.

“This is not right. Defects must be identified so that they can be corrected. When defects are pointed out and denounced, the Church is loved. Without love – that is from the Devil.”

Of course, you can do a lot in the Pope’s book if you do it with love. This is the man who said it was okay to abuse children physically if you do so with love (Pope Francis says it is OK to smack children if their ‘dignity is maintained’ – The Guardian's U.S. edition). In 2015, the man whose followers think is a living saint got positively tearful at the idea of a father beating his child “with love”.

A good father, the Pope says, forgives but is able to “correct with firmness” while not discouraging their child.

“One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say ‘I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them’,” Francis said.

“How beautiful,” the Pope added. “He knows the sense of dignity!”

I dunno about you, Your Holiness, but if someone three times the size of me is beating the tar out of me, I really don’t care if he knows the sense of dignity or not.

But back to the Devil.

Francis Rocca, Vatican correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, told RTÉ’s Drivetime that in his experience the Catholic Church globally – “certainly including Latin America, and that’s where Francis comes from” – does not see the problem of paedophile priests in the same way that people do in the United States, or Ireland, Australia, maybe a couple of other countries.

“They see it as one issue among many, certainly a bad thing, something however for which a priest can be forgiven … even given a second chance. A bishop must be a father to his priests, he must balance mercy and justice. It’s a very, very different attitude.

“They think that we’re draconian, that we throw priests under the bus, as the Americans say. You hear this all the time when people are off the record here. They think that the Americans and the Irish are crazy.”

If Rocca is right, then it is those Catholics who demand zero tolerance for child abusers that are the aberration in the worldwide Church, and not those who move rapists to new parishes.

For at least a millennium, the Catholic Church has been a warm home for paedophiles. If they’re truly working for Jesus, then I’m quite happy to be a friend of the Devil.