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Raising expectations for the Vatican’s abuse summit

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)

On his flight home from Panama last week, Pope Francis told reporters he wanted to deflate what he perceived to be “inflated expectations” about the summit for presidents of bishops’ conferences on clerical sexual abuse to be held in Rome later this month. As far as I can see, however, the media’s expectations have been anything but inflated.

Back on December 9, for example, Crux’s John Allen wrote a column headlined “A reality check on expectations for February child abuse summit.” Or take my RNS colleague Tom Reese, who stuck in the needle a couple of weeks ago with “Five Reasons the pope’s clergy sex abuse meeting will fail.” Ouch.

Still, I’m sticking with my hopeful scenario. I predict that the meeting will move the Church significantly forward in dealing with the greatest challenge to its moral credibility since the Reformation.

For starters, let’s note how the pope himself explained what he meant by needing to puncture inflated expectations: “Because the problem of abuse will continue. It’s a human problem.”

Well, sure. If anyone imagines that a four-day meeting at the Vatican will put an end to all sexual abuse by priests and others in responsible positions in the church, they need to be disabused.

So what did Francis say will take place at the meeting?

First, the heads of the bishops’ conferences will be given a “catechesis” in child abuse. They will, in other words, be instructed in the nature and consequences of sexual abuse the way the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church lays out church doctrine.

Then they will receive a set of “protocols” for dealing with abuse cases. These will set the terms for “general programs” that each bishops’ conference will develop to address abuse, including “what the bishop must do, what the archbishop who is the metropolitan must do, what the president of the episcopal conference must do.”

“But,” said the pope, “it must be clear in that…that they are—let’s say it in terms [that are] a little juridical—that there are protocols that are clear. This is the main thing.”

Finally, the bishops will “pray, listen to witness and have penitential liturgies, asking for forgiveness for the whole Church.”

The protocols, then, are where the rubber hits the road, and my guess is that one of the reasons the Vatican told the U.S. bishops to delay voting on policy governing episcopal conduct at their meeting in November is that this was not—indeed, could not be—formulated to comply with them.

Whatever, I expect there will be plenty of rubber. The four-person planning committee includes Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the tough Maltese who conducted the investigations that brought down Marcial Maciel Degollado, the predatory founder of the Legionaries of Christ, and led to the dismissal of a number of Chilean bishops. He, along with German Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, director of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, and Cardinal Oswald Garcias from India, are not ones to mess around.

Will the protocols instruct the bishops’ conference on dealing bishops who cover up and otherwise mishandle abuse cases?

That’s the critical issue, at least in this country, where the scandal began 30 years ago. It’s the issue on which Francis has thus far most clearly fallen short, ordering up juridical processes that the Roman curia has succeeded in preventing from taking place.

These were noted in a long article in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica by Federico Lombardi, S.J., the former head of the Vatican’s press office who was recently named to serve as moderator of the summit.

The Motu Proprio As a Loving Mother of June 4, 2016, is a significant step for facing the particularly complex problem—continually raised in public discussion, especially in the United States—of the accountability of ecclesiastical authorities, that is, of the procedures to put into place for bishops accused not of crimes of abuse on minors (these are in fact already the concern of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, following previous mandate of the Holy Father), but of seriously inadequate behavior concerning cases of abuse (for example, hiding it).

Calling on the church to fully confront the crisis, Lombardi went on to say, “What must be opposed decisively is the tendency to protect yourself and the institution of the Church by fleeing difficult, uncomfortable situations, minimizing or even hiding the truth.”

When it comes to hiding the truth, the church’s central rationale has been the avoidance of scandal—not merely in the ordinary sense of the phrase but by way of a theological doctrine dating back to the Middle Ages. The latter goes so far as to mandate covering up ecclesiastical malfeasance on the grounds that making it known will weaken the faith of the community of believers. Again and again, the abuse files show church officials explaining their self-protective behavior by citing the need to avoid scandal.

In his most recent Christmas Address to the curia, Francis addressed the doctrine head on. “Even if it were to involve a single case of abuse (something itself monstrous),” he said, “the Church asks that people not be silent but bring it objectively to light, since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth.”

The doctrinal significance of this pronouncement should not be missed. And if the concept of “the greater scandal” is embedded in the protocols, the church will take a major step in the right direction. I’m optimistic that it will.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

14 Comments

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  • I agree with Mark Silk’s assessment of the significance of Pope Francis’ recent Christmas admonition to the Roman curia that “the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth” but am less optimistic than he is that the bishops will put protocols in place to ensure that the truth comes to light. The bishops never seem to learn Jesus’ lesson that “the truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32)

  • “there will be plenty of rubber”

    It is hard to believe that there will be any rubber with Pope Francis in charge. Maybe a lot of talk, prayer, reflection, and discernment about rubber, but not much rubber itself. If they want rubber, maybe they should have put Marie Collins in charge.

  • As long as Cupich is involved; nothing will be accomplished. After all, it was he who glibly noted that the Holy Father has a bigger agenda [of global warming] then addressing the sexual abuse scandal.
    But then again, Cupich is too busy running holy priests out of the church when they don’t agree with his “agenda”.

  • Frankly if a Bishop or Cardinal does not understand the heinous implications of sexual abuse they have no business being a bishop or cardinal.

  • “Then they will receive a set of ‘protocols’ for dealing with abuse cases. These will set the terms for ‘general programs’ that each bishops’ conference will develop to address abuse, including ‘what the bishop must do, what the archbishop who is the metropolitan must do, what the president of the episcopal conference must do’.”

    First, it is refreshing to finally have an article about what good may come from the Vatican meeting. I feared a gab-fest, prayer-fest, which is nice, probably helpful for those from countries where the sex abuse is not taken seriously yet, but insufficient given the point we have now reached in the USA and a good many other countries.

    What is important is some indication by the Vatican of assigning responsibility for acting and some idea that someone is responsible for overseeing what bishops do. I am making a big assumption that making mention of the metropolitan and the head of the episcopal conference means they are going to be given some role and responsibility for overseeing how individual bishops handle sex abuse cases, or investigating a mishandling. Whatever we do have now – which is effectively little to nothing – is obviously not working so perhaps this is a step forward.

    I strongly recommend the “long article in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica by Federico Lombardi, S.J.” mentioned and linked in the article above.

    One issue that is not mentioned is cooperation of the Vatican and the papal nuncio’s with national or even state investigations. There is a todo going on now with the refusal of the papal nuncio to Great Britain failing to cooperate with an investigation. This is the same story that has happened in other countries. Bishops give papal nuncios information on sex abuse by priests for Vatican action against the priest, but will not share that information with local police or allow the information to be used in local, state, national investigations.

    And, will Pope Francis encourage Italian bishops to report suspected cases of sex abuse to the local civil authorities for investigation? Sex abuse is a social crime, not just a problem when a priest is involved. We need for institutions like the Catholic Church to help society deal with it, as an example to all social institutions of a responsibility they have to their communities.

  • I keep reflecting on this too, and I’m sure I’ve heard Francis say in so many words that many of them do not understand the gravity of sexual abuse and don’t know how to react to it. I believe he may be referring in particular to bishops who believe their own nation is immune to such problems and is trying to ensure that the reactions of the past–cruel and counter-productive–will at least not be repeated in future years in other places. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that across the board, bishops still don’t get the basics. There’s been some disturbing stuff to come out about Cardinal Bernardin of seamless garment fame–a victim who complained to him about a predator priest wrote an article recently in which he reproduced Bernardin’s letter to the priest abuser alongside the one he wrote to the victim. The note to the victim was hectoring and cold, urging him to move along with his pain; the one to the abuser was first-name basis–warm, comforting, and supportive. It’s hard to imagine someone often described as humane and visionary mucking this up this badly, but I guess these are the reactions a dangerous mindset tends to generate. All the more reason to believe the bishops need to do much more than come up with a new set of directives.

  • “a ‘catechesis’ in child abuse.” Any group that needs to be taught about how bad child sex abuse is should be shunned and marginalized. Perhaps even outlawed.

  • Why is Cupich on this panel….I just don’t get it. He could be an advocate at summit for global warming, and I would get it, but for upholding the rights for the sexually abused? Our leaders fail. Thank you for redirecting my faith back to the one who never fails.

  • Mark, you forgot to indicate Press Release at the top of this opinion piece. Mybe, the pope can have a dental assistant come in and teach the bishop and cardinals that extremely complex task of brushing and flossing their teeth. Hopefully, you are young enough to quit you day job and learn a new trade like carpentry, sheet metal or welding.

  • The greatest scandal will be the recruiting of non-believers into the seminary’s. That is what Cupich is trying to prevent from occurring.

  • A couple of observations: There are hundreds of millions of Catholics spread all around the world. They represent all sorts of cultural norms, some very different from ours. A catechism is a single statement that tries to unify and standardize the thinking of all those millions. It’s a hopeless case (changing cultural norms) in the short term, but given enough time it will make some movement toward a common understanding and eventual change in cultural norms. In the US everything is short-term thinking; we forget that Christianity is very long-term in outlook.
    A second thought: What is obvious to us isn’t necessarily obvious in other parts of the world. Lately we’ve been hearing about priests in some parts of Africa (and elsewhere) sexually abusing nuns. His culture allows him to think he’s being celibate because he isn’t married. The nun must be obedient to her male superiors so she accepts it. If she resists and is raped and complains she will be turned out of the order. Clearly wrong by out standards, but given the respective roles for men and women in those countries it’s not hard to see how it happens. A catechism represents common world-wide norms. However, having one but not enforcing it consistently makes it useless. I’m guessing that the Pope’s apparent desire to insist on common world-wide enforcement is what’s worth celebrating.

  • Nothing will change. Nuns have been held as sex slaves for years and the Vatican knew about it. The whole priest thing has been talked about for years, and nothing has happened to correct anything. The church will just talk about it until the news blows over and it will start again.

  • “I predict that the meeting will move the Church significantly forward in dealing with the greatest challenge to its moral credibility since the Reformation.” Really? What we have here is the old one-two punch from our morally challenged society. Take, for example, current events in NY. Punch 1: Governor Cuomo signs a bill which removes the word abortion from state law. This effectively repeals a law protecting children after birth — infanticide. Punch 2: He rails at the Catholic Church for holding up the Child Victim’s Act, while waffling around on “notice of claim.” “Notice of Claim” protects “guess who?” Government entities.The Senate blocks this loop-hole. The Bill goes to the Governor. He says he may sign it on Feb. 19. By then will Cardinal Dolan be on his way to the Summit? I wonder. I also wonder (if like Pennsylvania’s dead attempt at something similar) there may be a need for the victim to prove a higher level of negligence against a public entity, than a private? Perhaps a cap on claims against public schools? If neither of these is true, I wonder if the money in the budget for public schools will be enough. Perhaps the Governor needs to allocate more.

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