VATICAN CITY — Ahead of his meeting tomorrow with the head of the U.S. bishops to discuss the crisis of sexual abuse, and following revelations today of thousands of historical clerical sex-abuse cases in Germany, Pope Francis has decided to convene a meeting of bishops on the theme of “protection of minors” and other vulnerable adults.
The Vatican announced Wednesday that the Pope decided to hold the meeting, which will take place at the Vatican Feb. 21-24, 2019, after consultation with the council of cardinals, which met at the Vatican this week.
The Vatican said that during the 26th meeting of the council of cardinals, which advises the Pope on reform of the Roman Curia, the body’s members “reflected extensively together with the Holy Father on the theme of abuse.”
The announcement came ahead of Thursday’s much-anticipated meeting between the Pope Francis and the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
The cardinal had requested the meeting in August, in the hope of enlisting Francis’ support for a “plan of action” to make reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops “easier” and to “improve procedures for resolving complaints against bishops.”
The request came after a New York archdiocesan investigation revealed that the archbishop emeritus of Washington D.C., Theodore McCarrick, allegedly had sexually abused a minor male altar server during the early 1970s, and later revelations that he had also faced allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests during his tenure as a bishop serving in Newark and Metuchen, New Jersey, resulting in a pair of civil settlements.
The urgency to hold the meeting grew after the Aug. 25 publication of a letter by the former nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s testimony allegedly implicates Pope Francis and other Vatican officials in a cover-up of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuses of seminarians and priests and of impairing a measure allegedly imposed by Pope Benedict XVI against the ex-cardinal.
In an Aug. 27 press release, Cardinal DiNardo said Archbishop Viganò’s testimony “brings particular focus and urgency” to the USCCB’s examination of the accountability of bishops.
“The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past."
Joining Cardinal DiNardo at tomorrow’s meeting will be Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, who is the vice president of the USCCB; and Msgr. Brian Bransfield, the secretary-general of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
The Meeting’s Significance
Many see the meeting as highly significant, in the wake of the combination of the scandalous revelations regarding Archbishop McCarrick and the devastating grand jury report released last month on clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
“This is a crucial moment in the history of U.S. Catholicism,” said George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. “Cardinal DiNardo has made a public commitment to get to the truth about the McCarrick scandal, from whatever sources are available, and to make sure that nothing like it can ever happen again.”
Weigel told the Register Sept. 11 that Cardinal DiNardo “deserves the full, unstinting support of Pope Francis in this effort. So do the Catholics of the United States. So this is also a crucial moment for this pontificate.”
Even some observers who have objected strongly to the criticism directed against the Pope, in the wake of the publication of Archbishop Viganò’s allegations, agree that tomorrow’s meeting is required.
In Sept. 12 comments to the Register, the editor of the Catholic periodical Commonweal, Dominic Preziosi, said it is “important that a representative of the U.S. bishops be able to speak freely with the Pope” and that the USCCB’s questions and concerns are put “directly to him.”
In a recent editorial, Commonweal stressed the importance that the Pope “directly” address Archbishop Viganò’s accusations. But Preziosi is doubtful that any release of documents will change the minds of many Catholics in the U.S., especially the Pope’s detractors. And it is unlikely any documents exist regarding the most serious charge against the Pope, that he “had ‘rehabilitated’ and ‘elevated’ McCarrick, whatever that means,” Preziosi said.
What is clear, he observed, are two different but related “crises” in the Church since the release of Archbishop Viganò’s letter: “The grave crisis of sex abuse and cover-up, and a crisis of confidence.” Regarding the latter, he believes it is “clear that many Catholics in this country are more inclined to trust Viganò — someone most of them had never heard of a month ago — than the Holy Father.” And Preziosi regretted that Archbishop Viganò’s testimony “has revealed that too many American Catholics are eager to believe the worst of their Pope, for reasons that have little to do with sex abuse. They want him brought down, whatever it takes.”
Meanwhile, another report of thousands of clergy-abuse cases was revealed today, this time in Germany.
The study, the first of its kind to be commissioned by the German bishops’ conference and leaked by two German publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, is also the first admission by the Church in Germany that it covered up thousands of abuse cases.
The bishops had planned to publish the report Sept. 25.
The results show that between 1946 and 2014, 1,670 priests were accused of abuse involving 3,677 alleged victims who were children and adolescents. The report, according to Die Zeit, reveals that 4.4% of all priests during that period sexually abused minors.
The study took place over four and a half years and involved innumerable interviews and analysis of files. It shows that many abusing priests were simply transferred from one parish to another and that the Church only submitted one-third of them to canonical processes. Even then, the report says, the penalties were “minimal.”
According to Der Spiegel, more than half of the victims were aged 13 or under, and one in six cases involved different forms of rape. The magazine also says the overall figures are conservative estimates, partly because, in many cases, evidence had been “destroyed or tampered with.”
The research teams also did not have access to the original files of the Church, but, rather, the “archives and files of the dioceses that were examined by diocesan personnel or law firms hired by the dioceses.”
Die Zeit reports that 62% of the victims were male, and 35% were female, but in “some partial investigations, the percentage of male victims even went up to 80%.”
The researchers, who came from three German universities (Mannheim, Heidelberg and Giessen), “show restraint” in offering remedies for the abuse.
The authors of the study, Der Spiegel reported, recommend a coordinated strategy and a “long-term catalogue of measures” for the future, adding that those responsible in the Church must no longer “pay lip service” to the issue.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.