'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

Catholic shepherds from around the world gathered at the Vatican to talk about clergy sexual abuse, surrounded by journalists and victims asking lots of questions.

In the end, the only words that will matter — in terms of shaping life in Catholic institutions rocked by decades of scandal — will come from Pope Francis himself, aided by the close circle of cardinals and aides who helped plan this much-anticipated summit and kept it focused on a narrow and relatively safe subject — the abuse of “children.”

In other words, this painful puzzle will be solved by the men who have been in charge all along, including some men involved in the long and complicated career of former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. That’s all Catholics around the world are going to get, for now.

You can sense the anticlimax in the first lines of this wrap-up report from The New York Times:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse by calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and insisting that the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”

But for all the vivid language and the vow “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope’s speech was short on the sort of detailed battle plan demanded by many Catholics around the world.

Francis had barely finished speaking before some abuse victims and other frustrated faithful began expressing outrage and disappointment at his failure to outline immediate and concrete steps to address the problem.

After spending most of this weekend swimming upstream in the coverage from Rome (along with early #hashtagconfusion news from the United Methodist LGBTQ conference), I actually think that the most important story was a blockbuster Associated Press report from veteran Nicole Winfield.

This story focused on two topics that the principalities and powers in Rome worked so hard to keep out of the headlines — seminarians and the pope’s on connections to the issue of episcopal oversight.

The headline on this story at US News & World Report captured the timing issue: “Argentine Bishop's Case Overshadows Pope's Sex Abuse Summit.” Here’s the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis may have wrapped up his clergy sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican, but a scandal over an Argentine bishop close to him is only gaining steam.

The Associated Press has reported that the Vatican knew as early as 2015 about Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's inappropriate behavior with seminarians. Yet he was allowed to stay on as bishop of the northern Argentine diocese of Oran on until 2017, when he resigned suddenly, only to be given a top job at the Vatican by Francis, his confessor.

New documents published by the Tribune of Salta newspaper show that the original 2015 complaint reported that Zanchetta had gay porn on his cellphone involving "young people" having sex, as well as naked images of Zanchetta masturbating that he sent to others.

Do you need more details?

The Vatican has insisted that Zanchetta was only facing "governance" problems at the time of his 2017 resignation and appointment at the Vatican, and that the first sexual abuse allegation was made in late 2018.

The documents, however, make clear that the Vatican was aware of inappropriate sexual behavior by Zanchetta two years before he resigned.

They show that Oran's seminary rector was so concerned that he told the Vatican ambassador in a formal complaint in 2016 that "urgent measures" were needed to protect his first-year students, since their introductory classes were held in Zanchetta's residence.

The bottom line in all of this? Victims and some journalists were, by the end of the conference, asking what had been accomplished that would pass what could be called the “McCarrick test.”

In other words, there was a time when McCarrick was the American face of efforts to promote zero-tolerance, the man in charge of assuring Catholics that concrete actions would be taken to protect the innocent and to expose the guilty.

At this point, in light of this AP report, who are the individuals who are involved in the post-Vatican conference rule-writing that can pass the “McCarrick test”?

Let’s go back to the New York Times wrap-up report for some additional information on where things go next.

“The pope is the sole legislator, so he could make this change whenever he wants,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a prominent canon lawyer in the United States. “Zero tolerance should be universal law, and the Holy Father can do it himself.”

After the pope’s speech, the Vatican did announce that some specific steps that would be taken soon.

One was described by church officials as a toughening up of child-protection laws within the Vatican’s boundaries. They also spoke of a “very brief” handbook for bishops to understand their duties when it comes to abuse cases, and of new task forces of experts and canon lawyers to assist bishops in countries with less experience and resources.

But those limited measures had already been developed before the summit, and were not shaped by the meeting, Vatican officials said.

What are the names of the men in red who developed the measures that were already on the table before the big Vatican meeting? What are their records, on the five different forms of abuse at the heart of this long and complex scandal (click here for post and podcast on that topic)?

That’s where the story goes next.

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