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Pope demands ‘concrete’ response to abuse crisis at Vatican summit

Survivors of sex abuse hold a cross as they gather in front of Via della Conciliazione, the road leading to St. Peter's Square, visible in background, during a twilight vigil prayer of the victims of sex abuse, in Rome, on Feb. 21, 2019. Pope Francis opened a landmark sex abuse prevention summit by warning senior Catholic figures that the faithful are demanding concrete action against predator priests and not just words of condemnation. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis on Thursday (Feb. 21) opened a highly anticipated four-day meeting on his church’s ongoing sex abuse crisis by calling on the assembled bishops and other Catholic leaders to “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice” and be “concrete.”

“The holy People of God look to us, and expect from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete,” Francis said.

But as the day wore on and the nearly 200 clerics debated ways to respond to the crisis, it became less clear which “concrete” responses can be agreed upon by a global church rattled by multiple scandals, or whether they will satisfy abuse victims.

Francis opened the conference the featured episcopal presidents of the more than 150 nations by distributing 21 “reflection points” for consideration by church leaders. The recommendations included preparing a handbook for local churches to follow in abuse cases, establishing protocols for handling accusations against bishops and raising the minimum age for marriage to 16.

Pope Francis speaks with the Rev. Federico Lombardi, left, the former Vatican spokesman who is moderating the sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican, at the opening of the summit on Feb. 21, 2019. The gathering of church leaders from around the globe is taking place amid intense scrutiny of the Catholic Church’s record after new allegations of abuse and cover-up last year sparked a credibility crisis for the hierarchy. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo via AP)

At a news conference after the session, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, former director of the Holy See press office, described the list as “starting points” for conversation among bishops. But Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, speaking after Lombardi, made clear that the bishops’ various perspectives on abuse were as different as the countries they represented.

“What was immediately evident was the challenge of dealing with the very different cultural contexts of this meeting,” Coleridge said, referring to the discussion in the breakout meetings that put bishops from all over the globe together in groups of 20.

He said bishops from Africa and Asia asked why the conference was focusing narrowly on sexual abuse, instead of other kinds of abuse, such as child labor and child soldiers.

“(It) raised the question of how challenging it is to be a church that is both radically local and genuinely universal,” said Coleridge.

With the Vatican buzzing about the recent publication of a book alleging that a junta of gay priests carried outsized influence in Rome, one journalist asked why the pope’s “reflections” did not mention homosexuality. Charles Scicluna, the archbishop of Malta, quickly dismissed any uniform correlation between sex abuse and same-sex attraction.

At a protest outside St. Peter’s Square, Peter Isely, the head of Ending Clergy Abuse, mocked the pope’s recommendations. “‘We’re going to put together a handbook, let’s talk about that,’” Isely said.

Sex abuse survivor Peter Isely, head of the Ending Clergy Abuse organization, speaks to media at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

He also expressed frustration with the idea that abuse should be handled differently in different countries, arguing that Catholic leaders already have a precedent for maintaining a single teaching in various cultures — namely, the prohibition of abortion.

“If you’re in a country and a culture in which abortion is OK, do you then say, ‘Well, we’re not going to have this law in the church about abortion until that country or culture gets it. Then we’ll have it?’” Isely told Religion News Service.

Isely’s group was one of several working to make their voices heard around Vatican City on Thursday. Besides Ending Clergy Abuse’s vigil for victims of abuse, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests held its own news conference on the need to hear survivors’ stories.

By and large, church leaders made efforts to mention the voices of victims during prayers or speeches. Testimonies from survivors were also incorporated into the meeting and preceded the pope’s morning remarks.

“We cannot continue with this crime to cover the scourge of sexual abuse in the church,” one unnamed victim said. “I hope that the Lord and Mary will enlighten you that, once and for all, we work with justice to remove this cancer from the church, because it is destroying it. And this is what the devil wants.”

The rest of the day was filled with working groups, news conferences and a trio of presentations delivered by high-ranking clerics focused on the day’s theme of “responsibility.” (Tomorrow’s theme will be “accountability,” followed by “transparency.”)

Representatives from the Catholic clergy sex abuse summit speak to media at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2019. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Cardinal Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila, in the Philippines, led the first talk, which focused on theology. He framed his address around the biblical story of Doubting Thomas, in which the disciple is convinced of Jesus’ resurrection only after touching his wounds.

Tagle used the story as a metaphor to call for clerics to “draw close” to the wounds of those hurt by the church.

“The abuse of minors by ordained ministers has inflicted wounds not only on the victims, but also on their families, the clergy, the church, the wider society, the perpetrators themselves and the bishops,” he said. “It is also true, we humbly and sorrowfully admit, that wounds have been inflicted by us, bishops, on victims and, in fact, the entire body of Christ.”

Tagle, who often choked back tears as he spoke, is widely seen as a liberal churchman sometimes referred to as the “Asian Francis.” He suggested that clerics ask for forgiveness, but not forgiveness that would “just let it all go, excuse the abuse, just move on.”

“We do not deserve that forgiveness in the order of justice but can only receive it when it is bestowed as gift and grace in the process of healing,” he said.

Tagle’s approach offered a sharp contrast to the far more reserved and practical tone of Scicluna, a leading voice on the subject of abuse. He was elevated by Pope Francis last year to be adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that deals with sexual abuse by priests. His team’s 2,300-page report on abuse in Chile prompted Pope Francis to apologize for defending a bishop accused of covering up abuse by a pedophile priest in the country.

Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna, left, and Brisbane’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge attend a media briefing in Rome on Feb. 21, 2019, during the four-day sex abuse summit called by Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

Speaking after Tagle on Thursday, Scicluna walked through what he called “instances of best practice” for handling abuse allegations, including measures already used by dioceses in the United States, such as making it easier for victims to report abuse, forming local advisory boards and collaborating with local law enforcement. He made clear that local civil or domestic laws on abuse should be obeyed.

But he also said Catholics around the globe need to be assured that the church wants to hear about instances of abuse. “The faith community under our care should know that we mean business,” he said. “We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”

If the talk at the conference is familiar to the American bishops, the stakes are nonetheless high for their delegation. The Vatican gathering was cited as part of the reason why Vatican officials made a last-minute request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November to hold off on votes that would have potentially implemented new systems for holding bishops accountable who either protect abusive priests or commit abuse themselves.

The head of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, has also faced criticism for being too slow to take action on abusive priests. In November, police searched his archdiocesan offices as part of an investigation into alleged child sex abuse by a local priest.

Just as the bishops were gathering in Rome over the weekend, Francis announced the defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in response to allegations that included sexual assault of seminarians and solicitation of sex while hearing confession.

Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez, archbishop of Bogotá, Colombia, closed the day with a talk on “dealing with conflicts and tensions and acting decisively.” He walked through general ways that bishops can respond to allegations of abuse and suggested that a “code of conduct” for bishops on how to respond to abuse allegations is forthcoming.

Such a code, he said, “will clarify and demand of us the conduct that is proper to the bishop,” but “will be a guide for the Church and society as well, allowing everyone to properly assess the bishop’s actions in specific cases and giving us all the confidence that we are doing well.”

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

93 Comments

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  • “21 reflection points”

    Clearly, this Summit is being produced and directed by Saturday Night Live. Or maybe some of the Monty Python crew have come out of retirement.

  • Mark, my friend, sincerely not being nasty here, but this is exactly what hurts the RCC the most and this is what needs to be overcome: ““I hope that the Lord and Mary will enlighten you that, once and for all, we work with justice to remove this cancer from the church, because it is destroying it. And this is what the devil wants.” I just read that and wondered how the person can consider being taken seriously.
    I know it is a big assembly, but someone has to do some teaching sometime – if people will listen.
    I promise I am not trying to be rude here.

  • Abuse needs to be approached in all denominations – not only Christian – but we also need to remember John the
    Baptist

  • Instead of ‘concrete’ action, I suggest ‘millstone’ action. Matthew 18:16. What really has been done?

  • This (RCC) is not about individuals – it is about a systemic cover up to protect the institution over the individuals.

  • The evidence of “systemic” is completely lacking.

    “Widespread” is evidenced.

    And in each case the offenders were violating the Canons and guidance already in place.

  • Well what a relief it’s only widespread. You’re defending the indefensible – the cover-up and the apparent lack of concrete action though the problem was identified some time ago.

  • Your defending the imaginary.

    What has not been demonstrated is a church-wide cover-up and lack of concrete action.

    Some bishops – Bruskewitz in Lincoln, Nebraska, for example – had zero problems, zero lawsuits, ran herd on his seminaries, and booted problems.

    Some bishops – Theodore McCarrick and Rembert Weakland for two examples – were actually part of the problem.

    NO organization has a 0% failure rate.

    If the phrase “was identified” refers to either RNS or the general secular media, we’ve identified the source of your misimpression.

  • What Scicluna said :

    “‘ “The faith community under our care should know that we mean business,” he said. “We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.” “‘

    What Scicluna meant – and how the bishops, correctly, interpreted Scicluna’s words :

    “The clerical community under our care should know that we mean business,” he said. “We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down
    our lives for the priests entrusted to us.”

  • ” And in each case the offenders were violating the Canons and guidance already in place.”

    Then why this summit ?

    You pompous pontificating Catholic hater !

    You are the vain-misanthropic protector of rapists and sexual predators of the faithful CATHOLICS, lay and avowed !

    The RCC (Roman Criminal Clergy) bishops and priests are raping their own !

    You – Connelly/Arnzen are the Catholic hater !

  • ” And in each case the offenders were violating the Canons and guidance already in place.”

    Then why this summit ?

    You pompous pontificating Catholic hater !

    You are the vain-misanthropic protector of rapists and sexual predators of the faithful CATHOLICS, lay and avowed !

    The RCC (Roman Criminal Clergy) bishops and priests are raping their own !

    And engaging in criminal conspiracy in covering-up their crimes

    You – Connelly/Arnzen are the defender of these monsters – in so doing you prove yourself to be the real Catholic hater !

  • No, the abuse within the Catholic Church must me dealt with within the Catholic Church and stop defending all these pedophiles and paying off victims with hard earned money donated to the Church. That money is to help the poor not the peds.

  • To add: The families of the child victims are the one’s that should be conducting the summit at the all boys club/Vatican. It is not the children of the Priests and the Pope that have been victimized. I am sure that some of the Catholic leaders at the summit will be some of the perpetrators and enablers calling for forgiveness.

  • If it were not “systematic”, then when accusations of abuse surfaced in one diocese, the ‘sick’ priest is placed on temporary health leave, then transferred to another diocese — often with full access to children as altar boys, within the parish and at Catholic schools. This is a pattern that has been repeated over and over again as demonstrated in numerous court cases. But, they rarely see the inside of a prison.

  • “It is not the children of the Priests … that have been victimized.

    Actually, some children of priests have been victimized in one way or another; other children of priests have been aborted.

  • If that is a fact, then they should bring that up at another summit, because this summit is to address a specific and widespread problem of Catholic clergy and innocent children of the parishioners.

  • This summit is about oddly attired men meeting to convince themselves that they are as important as they think they are. If it were really about the “widespread problem of Catholic clergy and innocent children of the parishioners”, Marie Collins would be in charge.

  • Good point! I should have sad it is “supposed” to be about widespread problem of Catholic clergy and innocent children of the parishioners.

  • This conference strikes me as pure PR nonsense.

    I don’t see how the RCC needs to do any reflection or changing of doctrine or etc to end this problem.

    Here are a few steps that strike me as stunningly obvious:

    1. Bishops (etc) who have been told of abuse and fail to act, will be defrocked or otherwise disciplined.
    2. Criminal convictions of clergy will be announced in local churches–so as to encourage other victims to come forward.
    3. Allegations of sexual abuse MUST be reported to police.
    4. Church members alleging abuse will be instructed or encouraged to report those allegations to police.

  • I think you may mean that no organization has a 100% success rate (in preventing abuse), which is true both for religious and secular institutions.

    The question is why Bp Bruskewitz or someone similar wasn’t in charge of handling the crisis.

  • Whatever they end up deciding, unless it includes lay oversight it will be doomed to fail.

    The one thing that has become abundantly clear by now is that the bishops have an irreconcilable conflict of interests and they cannot police themselves.

  • Clearly, the Church’s shepherds struggle mightily with the charism of infallibility supposedly granted by their Lord in matters of faith and morals (Catechism, 890).

    Basic principles: People first, accountability and transparency always. Can’t live up to that? Find a different line of work. Perhaps used car sales.

  • Not when they are so busy policing other people’s sex lives, other people’s marriages, other people’s Vaginas, other people’s marriages.

  • Your previous comment reminds me of the old Spanish saying: “A priest is a guy whom everyone calls ‘Father,’ except his own children, who call him ‘Uncle’.”

  • Whether they’re peddling flapjacks, fexofenadine, or faith, bureaucracies circle the wagons to protect the poobahs. It does take outside parties to erode that tendency.

    The RCC, is no different.

  • Dear Mark, I love you, my brother…but you have some serious and huge problems with “DENIAL”…please STOP defending the INDEFENSIBLE!!! In Jesus’ name, AMEN

  • WRONG! ANY abuse that broke criminal laws must be dealt with by courts and police. ALL victims must be compensated for pain and suffering. To AVOID taking responsibility is to serve SATAN and offend Christ.

  • What you seem to be missing – and no doubt on purpose – is what in law is called a “conspiracy”.

    Each individual who committed abuse was violating the Catholic Church’s moral teachings and Canon Law.

    Each individual who mishandled abuse was violating the Catholic Church’s Canon Law.

    With over 5,500 bishops in over 190 countries and over a billion members, it should not be a surprise that abuse occurred in US, Australia, Ireland, Chile, Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Spain, France, Germany, etc, etc.

  • Good question.

    In the 2002 meeting in Washington, DC, Bishop Bruskewitz made two proposals:

    – the bishops apply the same sort of rules to themselves they were imposing on laity and lower clergy;

    – the Church investigate the rise of homosexuality in the Church and the rise in abuse to see if there was any relationship.

    Both proposals were defeated by the dominant group in the meeting led by … Theodore Cardinal McCarrick.

  • But what would help the criminal law stick, is good Priests coming forward as witness to this massive ongoing problem. Satan and Jesus are non-existence entities. If this was offensive to Jesus, he should have done something about this negative creation.

  • Good response. But where does the Church go from here? Will it adopt and enforce those two proposals? And if not, what then? Is the same “dominant group” still in power, and if so, who leads it?

  • There is currently no Canon for dealing with bishops who fail to follow Canon Law. The authority for that, and also the author of Canon Law, is the Holy Father.

    Having watched this Pontiff operate since his election March 13, 2013, what do YOU think the odds are that he will take strong corrective action?

    The “dominant group” in 2002 is no longer dominant.

    McCarrick is history, all his friends are singing “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay”, Wuerl is a footnote, and with some exceptions like Cupich there seems to be a recognition the time for talking is over.

  • Yes, I am sure that used to bring the house down at Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State meetings.

    And then off to don white sheets and burn a few crosses.

  • “Lay oversight” is a code for “become Anglicans”.

    That is certainly script at National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, Call to Action, et al, but as the Church of England and the Episcopal Church demonstrate, it accomplishes nothing.

  • On the issues on which I have commented more Catholics agree with me than with Mark/Bob, who regularly denounces and insults all Catholics and other eho do not share his clericalist extremism.

  • Ooops, and I left out the scandals in Italy and Poland. B uty leave it to Mark/Bob to defend the coverupers.

  • If they agree with you, they’re hardly “Catholic”, and pointing that out is hardly an insult to Catholics.

    Of course your idea of “Catholic” is Catholics for Choice, which has zero Catholics.

  • Needed is a catholic gender revolution. The solution to the problems of the Catholic church and sexual abuse is very clear and obvious. It is the will to do so that is completely the problem. The solution is a massive gender revolution in the Church. Simply put, basic human rights will solve the problem:
    1. The celibacy of the priesthood must end. Priests must be allowed to marry and bring families into the church.
    2. Women must be allowed full equality in the church. No exceptions. They must be able to become priests.
    3. Fully one half of all senior clergy in the church, bishops, arch bishops, cardinals, and above must be women, or the respective pool be reduced until they are.
    4. Priests must not be allowed alone with children or women or men behind closed doors without another party present. Even perceptions of opportunity for impropriety must be avoided.
    5. All sexual misconduct allegations reaching thresholds of assault or criminality must be referred to outside civil authority for prosecution as the law deems as criminal.
    If the church is serious about protecting children and women, they can do this. If not I fear the Catholic church is on a clear path to irrelevance and extinction; and God in heaven continues to weep. Your moment has arrived. Choose.

    In peace

  • Bruskewitz refused to participate in the diocesan survey. We don’t know what happened in Lincoln. But it wasn’t zero, that’s for damned sure.

  • It found 80+% of the abuse was male-on-male.

    However, it did NOT study the relationship between the abuse and the rise of homosexuality among the clergy.

  • Bruskewitz refused to submit the USSCB lay organization which purported to be policing bishops, and he cited good canonical reasons.

    It was, in fact, zero.

  • No, it did not.

    I’m betting you don’t have a url to either version of the study, which has been hashed out in RNS comments several times.

  • It concluded “homosexuality” was not a cause of the abuse. Most homosexual priests have never abused anyone.

  • You might to want to carefully read the article AFTER you fix your url to eliminate the 404 error.

    Father Cyza was not accused of abuse nor has he been adjudicated guilty by a tribunal (no legal violation was alleged).

    One allegation has since been dismissed after an investigation by the Nebraska Attorney General.

    Another involved a priest with an alcohol addiction getting plastered with a 19 year old, no abuse or sex involved.

    The final allegation dealt with a priest temporarily in the diocese from another diocese for an event which occurred before he arrived in Lincoln.

  • You don’t have the url, do you?

    No, it did NOT conclude homosexuality was not a cause of the abuse.

    And, of course, most heterosexual priests have never abused anyone.

  • How many attorney general and/or local prosecutors have used this as a resource for commencing investigations, and how many convictions have resulted?

    Answer: zero and zero.

  • Okay, I’ll spoon feed it to you.

    After public outcry about the role of homosexuals in abuse, an additional report was issued by a group who were NOT the original investigators and DID NOT rely on the original investigation to put a bit of a fig leaf over the problem. None other than Theodore Cardinal McCarrick was a big supporter of this second report.

    Using generally available previous studies, this second report noted that homosexuals were no more prone on average to commit abuse.

    Based on a study of prison rape (individuals with low impulse control already incarcerated for an inability to stay within the lines – many for sex crimes – who are in all male controlled environment) this second report noted that under those conditions male-on-male rape was a result of availability of victims.

    It does not take Sigmund Freud to conclude that was quite the reach, and that an actual study as Bishop Bruskewitz recommended in 2002 might provide more relevant information.

  • You have nothing to support your claim; I have a record of thousands of abuses documented all over the country, with more than more being revealed every year. It’s much more rational to conclude that clergy sex abuse has occurred in every diocese.

  • So many cases fell outside of the statutes of limitation. But that doesn’t negate the fact that bishops purposefully covered up cases and shuffled perps around.

  • You have dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred, actual prosecutions for abuse.

    Allegations are not facts, claims are not indictments, and you’re sufficiently out of the mainstream that you wouldn’t recognize rational if it drove a semi over you and than backed up and parked on your backside.

  • Right, no problems in the RCC. Maybe a few kids were diddled — probably less than 12. And they probably seduced the poor priests. So what’s the big deal?

  • Pennsylvania, Catholic population around 3.5 million.

    https://www.mcall.com/news/local/mc-html-pennsylvania-catholic-population-map-20150317-htmlstory.html

    The Pennsylvania Attorney General conducted a two and half year investigation and found over a 70-year period 301 priests accused of abusing around 1,000 children.

    The diocese of Pittsburgh had an anti-abuse program 30 years before the investigation, and
    90 percent of allegations in the report in Pittsburgh occurred before 1990.

    More abuse was found in the Chicago Public Schools in a short period than in the entire state of Pennsylvania in the Catholic Church over a 70 year period.

    Perspective – it’s what you lack.

  • It certainly does not support your screaming announcement that the Catholic Church is the center of abuse in the modern world, that it has done nothing, that it is all a conspiracy if only attorney generals and prosecuting attorneys would reference bishop accountability.

    All that stems from two sources: a form of apparently untreated PTSD, and your vested interest in furthering the LGBT agenda.

  • The Pennsylvania investigation didn’t include Philadelphia. And we all know what happened there.

    You speak of some vague “moral code” as if you’re somehow superior, yet you’re more than willing to look the other way when children are sexually abused by so-called “men of God”. That’s evil.

  • Yes, and it did not raise the total from 301 to 1,301.

    It is not a vague moral code, as Sandi keeps pointing out to you.

    Same sex physical congress is a moral evil in traditional Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

  • First of all, I never claimed that the RCC “is the center of abuse in the modern world”. Never said that. It is a fact that it has done very little (thought it has done much to cover things up and avoid accountability), and any thinking adult can see that. You’re so damned obsessed with countering criticism of the RCC that you can’t see straight. I don’t have PTSD, and the abuse issue has nothing to do with whatever you think the “LGBT agenda” is. You have as much empathy as a rock, and that is a pathological condition.

  • I’m not the one who engages in same sex physical congress.

    I am assuming you know what “same sex” means. If you don’t, raise the issue now.

    “Physical”

    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/physical

    adjective – Involving bodily contact or activity.

    “Congress”

    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/congress

    mass noun – The action of coming together.

    So “same sex physical congress” excludes friendships, riding bicycles together, and belonging to the same book club.

    It includes anal intercourse, scissoring, and a wide range of oral and other activities, including forming geometric forms in groups of two and more with people of the same sex for the purpose of sexual gratification.

    It is inclusive, descriptive, accurate, and polite.

    If you think it involves perverted freaks, you should probably avoid engaging in it.

  • Well, let’s see.

    We have the 2002 guidelines, the Lincoln, Nebraska, follow Canon Law approach, the Pittsburgh program of 30+ years ago, and on and on and on.

    The evidence is overwhelming the abuse peaked at least 30 years ago, and has become quite rare.

    And yet you rant on “It is a fact that it has done very little (thought it has done much to cover things up and avoid accountability), and any thinking adult can see that.”

    And ONLY about the Catholic Church.

    I rest my case.

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