Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.
The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.
Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.” He promised, once again, that “concrete” changes were ahead.
What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.
To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:
What has changed?
This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.
“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”
In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”
How concrete remains the big issue. On the summit’s first day, 21 “points of reflection” were distributed to reporters and posted to the Vatican’s website. In them, the church fell short of zero-tolerance, but did make some headway in trying to eradicate the problem by implementing guidelines and procedures. For example, the pope controversially proposed that dioceses not publish lists of priests accused of abuse before a preliminary investigation and what he called “definitive” condemnation.
Every abuse is an atrocity. In people's justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God. It is our duty to listen attentively to this silent cry. #PBC2019https://t.co/Gx9M9MgzTX
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) February 24, 2019
The ones that stand out from the list of 21 are No. 7 (Establish specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops); No. 13 (Establish provisions that regulate and facilitate the participation of lay experts in investigations and in the different degrees of judgment of canonical processes concerning sexual and/or power abuse); and No. 16 (Introduce rules concerning seminarians. … Be sure that there are programs of initial and ongoing formation to help them develop their human, spiritual and psychosexual maturity, as well as their interpersonal relationships and their behavior.”)
Can we except more transparency from the church going forward?
This is the Catholic church after all, so such a question needs to be put into the proper context. The church is run more like a monarchy than a democracy, so whatever edicts are implemented — and how they are practically implemented — depends on who’s in charge.
There are many cardinals and bishops who have failed the church in the past. There’s no reason to believe that will change given that the church is made up of people prone to mistakes. What there does need to be is more accountability and transparency.
On Saturday, a top cardinal admitted that the church destroyed files to prevent documentation outlining decades of sexual abuse. In his speech, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church’s administration had left victims’ rights “trampled underfoot” and as a result had “made it impossible” for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.
“The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offenses were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden,” he added.
The bombshell admission — a moment of frankness rarely seen at this level during a Vatican event — further demonstrated the church’s sincerity in trying to make amends. What it also did, however, was open itself up to great scrutiny. When were these documents destroyed? Over what length of time? Ordered by whom? Was it done on Vatican orders? How many dioceses around the world did it include? And on and on.
Marx later clarified at a news conference that he was referring to what had occurred in Germany. Nonetheless, how pervasive was (is?) this practice in other countries? We don’t have the answer to that.
Secrecy remains a very big part of this institution, something highlighted by Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, in her talk over the weekend.
Will all victims get the attention they deserve?
Continue reading “Five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward,” by Clemente Lisi, at Religion Unplugged.