In his opening address to the “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church” on Feb. 21, Pope Francis placed before the assembly — and himself — a very clear task: “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.”

It was a stern demand and a high bar going forward. By the end of the gathering, Catholics were still angry and victims lamented what they described as yet another missed opportunity.

 

‘An All-Out Battle’

Over the four days of the Vatican summit, from Feb. 21-24, nine different speakers addressed different aspects of the sex-abuse crisis. All of the speakers were, for the vast majority of Catholics and the wider world, merely a prelude to the most important voice of the summit: Pope Francis, in his much-anticipated final speech at the end of the Mass on Feb. 24 in the sumptuous Sala Regia, in the Apostolic Palace.

The speech will be remembered by many less for what was said than what was not said. On a vast international stage, the Pope did not offer an apology to the victims. Nor, as was also the case throughout the summit, did he address all of the dark roots of the crisis.

His final address was unquestionably a risk. Having decided apparently that the apology offered the previous evening during a penitential service sufficed for a global audience and that victims had long been saying that more than mere apologies and words were needed, the Holy Father demurred from a formal apology and appealed directly for a global campaign to eradicate child abuse in all of its forms. “I make a heartfelt appeal,” he said, “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors, both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.”

While the Pope declared that sex abuse is “all the more grave and scandalous in the Church,” he sought to raise the issue of this terrible scourge to a worldwide phenomenon not limited to the boundaries of Catholicism. He urged the world “to work together to eradicate this evil from the body of our humanity by adopting every necessary measure already in force on the international level and ecclesial levels.” That was followed by eight points derived in part from the World Health Organization and various international bodies, as well as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. They included formation, reviewing guidelines by episcopal conferences, accompaniment of the abused, the digital world and sexual tourism.

These are worthy goals, and the Pope is absolutely correct that this horror is a global plague that impacts hundreds of millions of children. The challenge comes with the logical question from many in the media as to whether it is appropriate for Pope Francis to call for a universal crusade until he has first put his own Catholic house in order. And as the meeting would indicate, that essential task is still far from being realized.

 

The McCarrick Test

It was a bold call, but it also marked a striking departure from the topics and direction of the rest of the summit, with its stated focus on the sex-abuse crisis within the Church. The result was that the Pope’s final address overshadowed all of the other speakers, rather than affirming and summarizing what they had said. This was a pity, because some of the speeches were quite effective or showed flashes of a way forward that might truly benefit the Church in a time of deep trauma.

As was needed, the meeting touched on the role of bishops and looked for ways to hold them accountable and responsible for crimes of abuse or cover-up. This might have been an opportunity to begin a reflection on the identity of the bishop in the life of the Church and in light of the Second Vatican Council and collegiality. Unfortunately, such means of building toward authentic reform and renewal were caught up in the still-hazy concept of synodality that wormed its way into virtually every speech during the meeting and that continues to obscure more than illuminate as it comes into even more aggressive currency in this pontificate.

Nevertheless, Cardinal Blase Cupich’s speech on the second day of the meeting presented a possible path for bishops’ conferences around the world, especially the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had been denied the right to debate and vote on a set of proposals for holding bishops accountable by the Holy See at their meeting last November. The proposal included 12 procedural points that might serve as the foundation by bishops’ conferences — in particular the USCCB — for crafting effective norms to prevent further crimes from abuser bishops or bishops who are guilty of negligence or cover-up. Such proposals, and indeed virtually every effort at serious reform, must now include what might be called the “McCarrick Test.”

At the news conference on Feb. 22, longtime CNN Vatican reporter Delia Gallagher pointed out to Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston that in 2002 the American cardinals were in Rome working to implement a zero-tolerance policy, and the main figure in that endeavor was then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Why, she asked, should the American people trust them again?

Mr. Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and once a powerful cardinal, was laicized only days before the start of the summit, after one of the most horrendous scandals in American Catholic history. He loomed large at the Vatican summit, and after any speech that proposed new procedures and norms, reporters and Catholic faithful could ask: Will this prevent a new McCarrick? The test assumes greater significance as Catholics await the release of all relevant documents pertaining to his case and answering who knew what about him and when. Until that happens, questions remain about both the commitment to promised transparency and the seriousness of rooting out current abusers and those who help shield them, most so among the ranks of the bishops.

 

The Survivors

Unanswered questions are nothing new to the very large number of survivors of abuse. To its credit, the summit strove to have their voices heard, their testimonies placed squarely before the bishops and the Pope himself. It was horrifying testimony. One statement came from a woman who was raped by a priest starting when she was just 11 years old; the abuse continued for five years. “Engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength,” said the anonymous woman. “I desensitized myself: I held my breath; I came out of my body; I searched desperately for a window to look out of, waiting for it all to end.”

The survivors could derive some comfort from the words of the women speakers throughout the meeting. Valentina Alazraki, a journalist and mother, spoke bluntly to the bishops. “You may be certain,” she said, “that for journalists, mothers, families and the entire society, the abuse of minors is one of the main causes of anguish. The abuse of minors, the devastation of their lives, of their families’ lives, worry us. We believe such abuse is one of the most reprehensible crimes.”

After listening to the speakers and to Pope Francis, the survivors, however, seemed generally unsatisfied with the results.

 

Going Forward

By its end, the Vatican summit felt incomplete — perhaps because scant mention was made of the root cause of abuse, save for allusions to clericalism and abuse of power. There was no attention to other aspects, including predatory homosexuality in the seminaries, the demolition of the moral life by the sexual revolution and the practical abandonment of the Church’s teaching on chastity. While it was a start, many have to ask if the meeting achieved Pope Francis’ stated goal of concrete action.

The hard road now lies ahead: of finding value where possible in its deliberations. The U.S. bishops must now start with the proposals and forge norms that will pass the McCarrick test, not to mention canonical, legal and theological threats and ramifications. Circle June on the calendar: That is when the bishops gather for their spring meeting.

No institutional, procedural, canonical or administrative processes, however, will prove truly effective or lasting unless we have authentic renewal in faith and the sacraments, praying for good and holy shepherds, and exhorting them to speak and act with boldness.

The road ahead is treacherous. As Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, told the bishops this week, “We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church. We pause to pray: Lord, have mercy on us!”