This Register Symposium is not a physical conference, but a written collection of shared reflections from independent contributors with specialized knowledge regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The nine experts have been asked to reflect on the root causes of the problem, and the most effective path forward for the Church.
Many uncertainties surround the February meeting in Rome on the sex-abuse crisis. But two things — regrettably — are certain: First, we can expect the actual event and its sequels to be sharply politicized, as everything is in public life at this moment, including the Church. And second, little else.
Still, we can hope that at least some new space may be created for bishops who want to act, in addition to talk — notably among them, many American bishops.
We have a particular perspective on this problem in the United States. Ever since the 2002 Dallas Charter, the Church here has gotten a rather good grip on the abuse problem among priests. That’s not the case in other parts of the world; and the Vatican’s decision to focus in February on “The Protection of Minors in the Church” is frustrating because it is not as relevant to our situation as it may be elsewhere.
For most Americans, Catholic and not, the burning question is how to hold bishops accountable — for what they’ve done themselves or failed to do in disciplining malefactors.
The Holy Father’s last-minute request that the U.S. bishops not vote on concrete measures at their annual November meeting last year was predicated on the idea that the Church should work out a global approach — which early moves by Americans might short-circuit. Now, Vatican spokesmen are telling us that we should lower expectations because this meeting is intended to be more about educating than disciplining.
So it’s not mere cynicism to see the actual record here, whatever the intentions, as blocking proposed action in the name of seeking a consistent approach, then dithering and then redefining what was supposed to be an occasion for concrete proposals leading to action.
The McCarrick case has thrown all this in high relief since mid-2018. The average Catholic sees that the ex-cardinal’s abuse of position and sexual predation was long known at the highest levels of the Church. And yet Archbishop McCarrick somehow rose through the ranks to become cardinal-archbishop of the power center of the world.
Though he lost his cardinalship when his abuse of minors was revealed, many months later, essentially nothing else has happened — at least so far as is publicly known — either in terms of exploring how that happened or punishment for his misdeeds. To many Catholics, this seems to be a lack of a sense of urgency when they want justice to be done — and to be seen to be done.
It may be that, via an expedited process, Archbishop McCarrick will be laicized prior to the meeting. Rome seems to be preparing us for that possibility. That would be good, but only a first step — especially if it merely appears to be a PR strategy while the broader problem of holding bishops accountable is still not receiving serious treatment.
Criticism of this kind is unfortunately being mischaracterized by Vatican spokesmen as an attack on Pope Francis. This has been a divisive — often confusing — papacy, and it’s not surprising that revelations that include some quite high Vatican officials have angered people who are already agitated.
But we’re dealing with concrete cases here. And it’s not only from more traditional Church quarters that questions are coming about the delays and what sometimes seem like deliberate diversions. When the Pope intervened in the November meeting, even liberal Catholic outlets such as Commonweal and America, generally supportive of the Pope’s more controversial stances, wondered what precisely Rome thought it was doing.
Recent polls have shown a sharp drop in confidence toward Pope Francis among American Catholics. This is not the result of conservative websites and Twitter feeds, as some in Rome are claiming. Anyway, the debate should not be about interactions in cyberspace, but about what is going to be done in our everyday world about failures of bishops. Defenders of the Pope who do not see the harm delay is causing to his moral witness are doing him no favors.
Perhaps the best thing we may expect to come out of the February meeting is a certain freedom for the various bishops’ conferences around the world to take steps themselves, whether the Vatican is involved or not. Our American bishops had some good ideas about personal conduct and mechanisms for accountability before they were asked not to proceed.
There are doubtless other effective proposals they could adopt. But deliberation has already gone on quite long. We now need everyone concerned to understand that it’s high time to open up spaces to act.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute based in Washington, D.C.