Pope Francis, flanked by Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti, answers reporters' questions aboard the plane after taking off from Panama City on Jan. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, Pool)

Pope downplays expectations for sexual abuse meeting in Rome

(RNS) — Talking to reporters on his plane coming back from World Youth Day in Panama this week (Jan. 27), Pope Francis downplayed what he called “inflated” expectations for the upcoming meeting of bishops in Rome to deal with clergy sexual abuse. “The expectations need to be deflated,” he said. He also sought to lower expectations about the possibility of married priests.

Many in the United States have been hoping that the meeting on abuse, which will bring the presidents of the episcopal conferences from over 100 countries to the Vatican Feb. 21-24, would result in procedures for dealing with bishops who do not protect children from abusive priests. While the church has made progress in dealing with abusive priests, it still needs a process for dealing with bishops who do not protect children.

The expectations for the meeting were raised in November, when the head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, told the American bishops not to vote on such procedures at their fall meeting in Baltimore. Ouellet said the Americans should wait for a discussion of the issue at the meeting in Rome.

It now appears that the meeting will not develop new policies but, in the words of Pope Francis, will be a “catechesis” on the problem of abuse aimed at bishops who do not understand the issue or what they should do in response to abuse.

It also appears that the meeting will establish a task force to help bishops in implementing the church's policies and procedures for dealing with abuse.

“We noted that some bishops did not understand well, or did not know what to do,” Francis told reporters during his news conference on the plane.

RELATED: Five reasons the pope's clergy sex abuse meeting will fail

The pope hopes that the summit will help bishops understand the seriousness of abuse and what they must to do in response. The participants need to know “what the bishop must do, what the archbishop who is metropolitan must do, what the president of the bishops’ conference must do,” he said.

The references to metropolitans (the archbishop who is first among equals in his geographical province) and presidents of bishops’ conferences is confusing because they have no role in any sex abuse protocols at present. Each bishop is solely responsible for the priests in his diocese. The archbishops and presidents might provide moral leadership, but they do not have the authority to order a bishop to do anything. If at the meeting they are given new authority by the pope to deal with bad bishops, that would be something new.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, left, leads the USCCB's annual fall meeting on Nov. 13, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The pope’s comments confirm the point I made in an earlier column, that most Americans will view the meeting as a failure. The meeting is not aimed at the American church, which has been working on the sex abuse crisis for decades. The meeting is aimed at bishops around the world who do not understand the crisis and are making the same mistakes that the American bishops made in the past.

Thus, the meeting could be a disappointment for most Americans while still being a success for the universal church.

The same is true of his comments on the possibility of married priests, which many people expect to be discussed at the synod on the Amazon in October.

“I am not in agreement with making celibacy optional,” he told reporters. “I will not do it.” He quoted Paul VI, who said, “I would prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.”

But Francis left the door open for extreme situations, such as the Pacific islands and the Amazon region, where there might not be a priest for hundreds of miles.

“I believe that the issue must be open in this sense: where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests,” he said. “I will not say that it must be done. Because I have not reflected, I have not prayed sufficiently over this. But theologians must study.”

He referred to a theologian he was reading who stated, “The church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the church.”

“But where there is not the Eucharist … who will make the Eucharist?” Francis asked. The theologian mentioned the possibility of ordaining older married men for “celebrating the Mass, administering the Sacrament of Reconciliation and anointing the sick.”

The pope’s openness to discussing the ordination of married men “when there is a pastoral necessity” is a positive change from the absolute prohibition of such discussions in previous papacies. But his very narrow definition of "pastoral necessity" will disappoint many in North America and Europe who believe more priests are also needed in their areas.

At the same time, allowing married priests in extreme situations could be the camel’s nose under the tent that makes further developments possible as more and more areas argue their pastoral necessity.

By lowering expectations, Pope Francis is showing that he is not the revolutionary progressives hoped for or conservatives feared. He is at heart a compassionate pastor but also a realist, an incrementalist and a pragmatist. His respect for collegiality will not allow him to get too far out in front of the other bishops.

This will be a disappointment to some, but may be best for the universal church, which is composed of 1.2 billion believers from various cultures, traditions and political environments. Keeping this community together, while respecting differences, is the pope's job, even if it means lowering expectations.


  1. In other words, the do-nothing Pope will spend four days extolling the virtue doing nothing.

  2. Indeed, he should be ridding the Church of the Pink Mafia and their progeny without delay, without lip-flapping, and without more meetings.

  3. Well, I guess the Cupich crowd forced the holy fathers hand…

  4. The pope should downplay those expectations of doing anything about abuse. after all…

    Hermann Geissler was chief of staff for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with punishment for abusive priests. Last year, former nun Doris Wagner accused him of soliciting sex from her while in the confessional booth. “He would keep me there kneeling in front of him for hours, and he would tell me how much he liked me and that he knew that I liked him and even though we couldn’t marry, there would be other ways,” “At some point, he would try to hold me and kiss me, and I simply panicked and ran out of the room.”

    “When I told [a female superior], actually, I was extremely relieved that she didn’t blame me,” Wagner said. “Instead, she said something like, ‘You know, I knew Father has a certain weakness for women, so we kind of have to put up with this.’” Hahahahahahaha, he abuses women and we just deal with it, hahahahahahahaha.

    It leaves open the question of how seriously anyone should take the Vatican’s self-policing of sex abuse cases when they did nothing about the alleged abuser who worked with them every day.

    Begin with a fundamentally irrational view of human sexuality, add in a celibate clergy who supposedly leave all human desires behind for Jesus, give them power, then wonder why you have these problems.

    Silly me! It’s the pink Mafia that’s the problem, according to our regular pro-sexual-abuse posters.

  5. Didn’t you know they took very, very serious action against him? They “admonished” him. “The question of how seriously anyone should take the Vatican’s self-policing of sex abuse cases” is no longer a question. Only the self-deluding loyalists are going to think the Vatican is serious.

  6. I don’t think it is self delusion so much that is the problem, and I sincerely doubt they are loyalists. As always, it’s about power, money, and dominion, and the exorcising of personal demons under the guise of attacking other people’s alleged immorality.

  7. My expectations are even lower: clergy will gather and someone will be sexually abused then and there.

  8. “Silly me! It’s the pink Mafia that’s the problem, according to our regular pro-sexual-abuse posters.”

    Small suggestion for an edit:

    “Gay me! It’s the Pink Mafia that’s the problem, according to our regular straight posters.”

  9. “As always, it’s about power, money, and dominion, and the exorcising of
    personal demons under the guise of attacking other people’s alleged immorality.”

    So, your argument is that they are nearly indistinguishable in purpose and practice from the LGBT lobby of which you are a proud member.

  10. Buddy, my expectation cannot get any lower already.

  11. Re: “His respect for collegiality will not allow him to get too far out in front of the other bishops.” 

    Yes, of course, because the poor little things won’t be able to handle it if he were to order them to straighten up, fly right, and resign & turn themselves in to the authorities if they actively covered up for any abusers. 

  12. Re: “As always, it’s about power, money, and dominion, and the exorcising of personal demons under the guise of attacking other people’s alleged immorality.” 

    Well, yeah. Sure! After all, it’s far easier to do that, than for putative “men of God” to … like, you know … actually act like “men of God.” No? 

  13. Thanks for the anti-Catholic view, like we needed it.

  14. I thought you made it clear you had exited and therefore had no expectations and no dog in the fight.

  15. This approach by Pope Francis should suprise no one.

    He is the worst possible combination of ruthlessness and laxity. His politics are cunning, his approach seemingly casual.

    He likes to paint in broad sweeps – mercy for example – but has no theological framework.

    As R. R. Reno recently commented “He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (coprophagia!).”

    He targets the core Catholic faithful, attacking “mummified” Christians and “rosary counters”, singling out doctrinally orthodox priests for ridicule, and those who favor the Latin Mass.

    He undermines regular Mass-goers and the men laboring in parish ministry. His “Go to the peripheries!” in practice, has meant neglecting (if not attacking) bishops, priests, and laity who do the ordinary work of the Church.

    This behavior, which is not new, is why he earned the epithet in Argentina among the Jesuits “La Comadreja” – “The Weasel”.

    Unfortunately Jesuits formed by the Spiritual Exercises old enough to take the Church’s institutions for granted often take a pastoral approach that treats disruption and rule-breaking as a spiritual tonic to “enhance” their evangelical effectiveness. Break rules and adopt heterodox views will “put people at ease”.

    The author of this article is the perfect example, advocating cutting deals with abortionists, jettisoning theology, and making hay while the sun shines.

    As the author, and this Pontiff, well illustrate it leads to nothing positive.

  16. Mark/Bob is accusing a great many Catholics of being anti-Catholic. How charming.

  17. Fr. Reese is a Catholic, my point comes from insights of R. R. Reno – a Catholic, an analysis of the Society of Jesus – a Catholic religious order – in the late 20th and early 21st century, and the track record of the Catholic Pope.

    Edd Doerr is an ex-Catholic anti-Catholic.

  18. If a church defines itself as a teaching church, and requires of its membership belief of certain teachings, an individual who gives those teachings the one-finger salute and raspberry can hardly claim to be a member.

    How straightforward and logical.

  19. I am not anti-Catholic, and Fr. Reese is sure is a better Catholic than Mark/Bob.

  20. Would you like some samples of your remarks about the Catholic Church and in particular its bishops for .e.g.s?

  21. If they disagree with their own nominal church’s definition, then they’re hardly “Catholics”, are they?

  22. I get that the Pope needs to bring some bishops from parts of the world into an awareness that child sex abuse is very real and they need a plan to address it. As I understand it, many (most?) bishops in Asia and Africa have not submitted plans to dealing with child sex abuse to the Vatican, as requested by Pope Benedict XVI. They just haven’t acted with any awareness.

    BUT, there is the additional problem in Europe, the Americas, Australia, and perhaps some other countries that another problem is the lack of some program to deal with bishops who hide abuse and create scandal when the abuse becomes public knowledge. There is a very real lack of the bishops seeking to learn the truth about abuse and helping those abused and their families. This problem, the coverup, and the shabby treatment of victims has devastated Catholics in many countries.

    I would hope Pope Francis will have some plan drawn up for how bishops will be held accountable for the coverup of sex abuse. A process so that those abused and civic authorities can seek justice and accountability. Well, actually, the need for accountability is something all Catholics, not only victims, need to see if trust in the institutions of the Church is to be restored.

    Pope Francis also needs to deal with another problem that is coming much more into the light now – sex abuse of nuns by priests and bishops in some parts of the world. Again, there doesn’t appear to be any action by the Church to investigate or seriously look into this problem. It is as if the Church will just wait until some civil authorities determine of a real crime has been committed, totally giving up any organizational responsibility to find the truth – and I have to wonder if they will cooperate with civil authorities in the investigation of such accusations given the failure of the Vatican to be a part of child sex abuse investigations.

    I agree, however, that Pope Francis has inherited a mess from Paul VI, JPII, and BXVI. All three of the latter popes fought to return to an imagined better past rather than bring forward the aggiornamento that was recognized in Vatican II. I appreciate that Pope Francis has to move carefully. But he really does have to produce something regarding bishop accountability or watch the Church lose even more trust among Catholic people.

  23. Still experiencing side-effects from the meds, eh?

  24. This church will continue to disintegrate if this Pope does not deal SOON with all of the sexual abuse…the 1000’s of victims and 1000’s
    of pedophiles.

  25. Couldn’t just do an article on WYD? I hear the next one is to be in Lisbon. Catholicism goes on, spreading the Good News, as it will until the end of time. And our youth are going to be the ones who take it to the next step.

  26. Then you should clarify what you mean by “Pink Mafia”. His Enemance Raymond Cardinal Burke comes to mind.

  27. We Catholics needed our fellow blogger’s observation, which is behaviorally anchored.

  28. You confuse teaching with discipline, infallible with non-infallible, fiction with fact. Sad.

  29. What “theological framework” is necessary for “mercy”???

    You need help — and fast!!!

  30. Young folks at WYD events likely represent a miniscule portion of Catholic teens and young adults. If they take the time to inform themselves of the likes of JPII and his indifference to clerical sex abuse and episcopal malfeasance, for example, I suspect they’ll turn their backs on the old institution in due course.

  31. You’re referring to the sinful legacy of “Saint” JPII and predecessors, right?

  32. I think you think the US has more teens represented than other parts of the world?

  33. Great! Then you think the teens from Africa and Asia are worried about exactly the same issues as those from N. America?

  34. I don’t live in Africa or Asia, and I don’t know the percentage of teens in those areas who typically attend WYD events. That said, as developing countries acquire increased internet access, etc., and as word gets out in those parts of the world about clerics and bishops assaulting women religious and kids, I suspect young Catholics in these areas will increasingly repudiate the cultural artifacts of the Church of Rome, e.g., JPII’s indifference to sexual abuse victims, his and B16’s minimization of Vatican II’s renewal efforts, etc. Education and information are no longer limited to developed countries such as the USA. It’ll take time, but the future, as they say, is already here.

  35. I agree with you that the internet is indeed cross-cultural. However, I would think that in African and Asian countries, there is more preoccupation with the Christian Culture overcoming violence. I once talked extensively with a Christian woman from Nigeria. Among the topics we covered in regards to the Church were: Violence from Muslim extremists, huge numbers of seminarians from a very early age, the role of women in society, and demonic possession. I think we need an education in what it is like to live in those parts! But we’re getting to the point where we are going to disagree again. So, peace!

  36. The war between Catholicism and Judaism continues. Catholic nations like Venezuela and France rile against the Judaic stranglehold. Chavez and Maduro are paying the price for a strong stand against Israel. France’s Yellow Vests are aiming against the ruling powers which include institutes like the Rothschild bank in Lyon.
    At the same time the Media aims its barbs at the Catholic Church on issues more prevalent in Hollywood.

  37. “This will be a disappointment to some, but may be best for the universal church, which is composed of 1.2 billion believers from various cultures, traditions and political environments. Keeping this community together, while respecting differences, is the pope’s job, even if it means lowering expectations.” The “lowered expectations” is EXACTLY why the Church is in decline. Hey, let’s have another clown Mass, shall we????

  38. “imagined better past”. Do you mean as in the past when the Church was growing and not disintegrating??

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