Weeks after his departure from Mexico, the apostolic nuncio, Franco Coppola (Lecce, 64 years old), is in no hurry. The Vatican representative in the country speaks in detail about the country’s main problems: insecurity, drug trafficking, inequality and abortion. Inside the doors, the Vatican representative in the country admits the slow progress in the investigations into the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of priests and also recognizes the loss of the Catholic faithful in recent years in the country. From the atrium of the Basilica of Guadalupe to the most remote roads of a violent area such as Aguililla, Michoacán, the bishop assures in the balance of his nunciature that priests must “be with their people” and “attend to their people, not run away”. After five years in Mexico, on January 1, 2022, this bishop who previously traveled to several countries in Africa, will officiate his last mass in the country, then he will leave for Rome to receive orders from Pope Francis and from there he will travel to Belgium.
Question. Why does Pope Francis require his transfer to Belgium?
Answer. I have no idea. In the communication they make to us, they do not give us reasons, of course that when I now go to Rome the Pope will tell me personally.
P. What is the balance of your work in Mexico in the last five years?
R. I am leaving richer in faith and humanity. I am going to miss the faith of the people, in Mexico I have found the faith of the people, simple, but at the same time very deep and because I have to face or deal with at least the problems that exist in Mexico, I am also going to be richer in humanity. because the problems that Mexico is experiencing are very serious human problems.
P. Do you express it in reference to your trip to Aguililla, Michoacán in the middle of the security crisis last April?
R. I speak of violence as I also speak of the problem of the abuse of boys and girls and the violence of organized crime. These are situations that I did not know before, in fact, I had never had to deal with these issues and I have known them here. I don’t think that I can solve the question of insecurity, but I think that we can at least show people that we are close, that we realize what they are suffering, that they are not abandoned.
P. What effect do you think your visit to one of the most violent areas of the country had, because insecurity has not stopped?
R. It was something that surely gave the people of the place a lot of joy that day, but thanks to the coverage of journalists around the world there was talk of it and also among the authorities. In fact, I spoke a few weeks ago with the bishop of Apatzingán and he told me: ‘Monsignor, with Aguililla there are no problems with the communication channels, there is no blockade, we can go and return without problems.’
The problem is that organized crime likes silence, they like not talking. This Thursday I read that in Zacatecas they have found 10 people caught on a bridge, that would have to be something that makes people revolutionize, you cannot bear that and staying silent is not the solution. It is complicated, the solution is not as simple as saying we send a battalion and we solve the problem.
P. In his speech in Aguililla he said that the mafias flourish in the absence of a state. Is there a state absence in Mexico?
R. Yes. In Guerrero there are teachers nominated to work in the mountains, but they do not go up there because it is dangerous and they are right, but what is the consequence that the people there do not receive school? That is the absence of the state. It is precisely the silence and the social desert that helps organized crime to settle and do what they want.
P. What is the Catholic Church doing to help with these social problems, for example, in violence?
R. In Apatzingán, for example, the priests are with their people, they have not fled.
P. Some, like the bishop of Chilpancingo, Salvador Rangel, have even spoken with drug trafficking leaders …
R. The problem is complex, on the one hand, it seems to me that the good Salvador Rangel tries to follow the example of his employer. He is a Franciscan, from San Francisco. I don’t know what he (Rangel) has talked about, but I think so, that you have to talk to everyone. You have to talk to anyone, that’s the attitude of a diplomat. I do not think that it is up to the Church to confront criminals, I agree with what Pope Francis indicated, that the Church is like a field hospital, the world is at war, but we are not part of that war, we are a hospital of campaign like the Red Cross that tries to help the wounded and dead. The Church has to be present, the priests of Apatzingán who are present with their people do very well.
P. How has your relationship been with the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in these three years?
R. It has been a correct, very good relationship, also with the previous president [Peña Nieto] I have not had any problems. I have been very well received.
P. How do you agree with this government?
R. The president put his entire campaign into the fight against corruption and I think this is a point on which one can disagree. Mexico is a country that suffers from a lot of inequality, there are people who live like in the United States and there are people who live like in Africa in the same country.
P. However, in the country there have been decisions openly contrary to the Catholic Church such as the recent decriminalization of abortion, what do you think about the Supreme Court ruling?
R. It seems to me that it was a somewhat ideological decision, the right to decide was put before any other type of right.
P. Do you share the statements made by the Archbishop Primate of Mexico, Carlos Aguiar, that the decriminalization of abortion imposes a “cultural machismo”?
R. I do not want, nor do I have any authority, nor the will to blame people who feel obliged to abort, I think that the Church has to help them find solutions, if possible, and if it is not possible to find solutions, help them anyway later. who have aborted to face the feeling of guilt. The Church fights against death, that the State says I am not capable of ensuring the lives of my citizens, is a declaration of the impotence of the State. It is not a step forward in civilization, but there is a lot of respect. The Court has decided in this way.
P. The Church in Mexico has been criticized for how it has handled allegations of sexual abuse against its own members. How much has the Church in Mexico advanced to bring justice to these victims?
R. Progress is being made, but slowly. First of all, it is necessary to be very clear that it is a problem of society; Unicef figures say that 70% of abuses happen in the family, another important percentage in sports, there is a small percentage for which the ministers of the Church are responsible and it is very serious. It is an issue that we would all have to face as a society and the Church is acting accordingly. The Church has put some tools to protect, for example, there is a whole criminal and jurisdictional system to judge these cases so that they cannot harm children. Procedures are being put in place to repair the damage beyond psychological therapies.
P. Will this new procedure contemplate any financial compensation?
R. There is not at the moment, but it is something that is beginning, there are two procedures in Mexico where the victims have requested compensation and they are in process and of course the Church is open to it.
In these years the Pope has issued several laws on this point and I have to say that the Mexican Episcopate has promptly assumed these laws, at least, the structures are in place, after changing the mentality that is something else. Certainly, the new seminarians and priests will already be verified, but we must watch those who are already priests and who were instructed under the old regime and for that, thank God, I have to say, many of the abuses that are reported now are they refer to things in the past, 10 years ago and more. But there are still abuses today. There are not many, but that is unfortunate.
P. How many priests have been suspended in Mexico for alleged sexual abuse?
R. As soon as the accusation arrives, that priest is automatically suspended, in what is investigated, then these investigations have affected approximately 300 priests. Now, the investigations are not always quick, there are about 140 or 150 cases in which the investigations have already ended and it was clarified that the abuses were serious and that is why they have been resigned from the ministry, they are no longer priests. And of the other half, 10% clarified that it was not so much abuse but harassment. Then they were punished, forced to follow psychological therapies and their ministry was limited for a certain time and after that time if, apparently, the psychologists and other priests can return to the ministry. And there are 30 to 40% of cases in which the procedure has not reached completion.
P. Upon arrival in Mexico in 2016, the Catholic membership exceeded 83%. Now, although the country remains the second country in the region in parishioners only behind Brazil, the percentage has fallen to 77%. Where have the priests and bishops failed?
R. This is a global problem, not just Mexico’s. For this reason, the Pope has summoned in September a synod of all the dioceses, of all their parishes. We have to face this problem and give the possibility to those who have moved away because they do not feel at home to intervene and change what needs to be changed.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.