As the sex-abuse summit convenes Thursday in Rome, Pope Francis, for the sixth time in six years, will attempt to accelerate the pace and reach of the Church’s efforts to deal with sexual abusers and to protect minors. Those earlier efforts have, in fits and starts, raised both levels of frustration and expectation that this summit will have genuine results.
And as the summit opens, surprising criticism of the Holy Father’s record is coming from Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, appointed by Pope Francis to head up the pontifical sex-abuse commission.
The Framework of Pope Francis
The summit will operate within a framework of the dominant themes established by Pope Francis. The official program, released Monday, has Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, speaking on the “smell of the sheep” and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta addressing “the field hospital.” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India, will speak on “collegiality” in a Church that is “sent out,” while Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago will address “synodality.”
The program puts an emphasis not on policies or procedures, let alone changes to canon law, but on a change in mentality by bishops. The favored themes of the Holy Father are to provide the new directions necessary for tackling sex abuse on a universal level.
The sex-abuse summit thus follows in the same line as the synods on the family and youth, where the emphasis shifted from specific questions of doctrine or moral teaching to the call for a new pastoral approach. The summit takes the view that bishops who think as Pope Francis wishes them to think about their role as shepherds will then do the right thing in tackling sex abuse.
Six Initiatives in Six Years
The summit is the sixth major initiative of Pope Francis on the sex-abuse file. And it opens with his chief lieutenant for sexual abuse, Cardinal O’Malley, expressing his frustration with the shortcomings of the previous five.
In 2013, the Holy Father established a papal commission to advise the Holy See on best practices. Last week, prominent articles appeared that gave voice to Cardinal O’Malley’s frustration, namely that the Holy Father hears the commission’s advice, accepts it, but does not follow through.
The frustration appears to be mutual. Cardinal O’Malley is conspicuously absent from the summit’s program, even though two of his colleagues on the “council of cardinals” — Cardinals Gracias and Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany — are plenary speakers.
In January 2015, a new panel was set up within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to hear appeals of sexual-abuse cases, supposedly to expedite matters. Archbishop Scicluna was put in charge. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cardinal O’Malley found the decisions of Archbishop Scicluna’s appellate panel to be a “scandal,” as it favored more lenient penalties. On the eve of the sexual-abuse summit, the Holy Father’s top adviser on sexual abuse was at odds with the Vatican’s “chief prosecutor.”
In June 2015, Pope Francis announced a new special tribunal in the CDF to judge cases when bishops were accused of “abuse of office.” The CDF was never consulted on the initiative, and, after its announcement, it was never implemented.
In June 2016, Pope Francis dropped the tribunal idea and instead issued new legislation that gave various departments of the Roman Curia responsibility for investigating and judging bishops who either abused their office or were negligent, especially in regard to sex abuse.
In 2018, on his return flight from Dublin, the Holy Father confirmed that the provisions of his own legislation were not being implemented either, as he had changed his mind and preferred to judge such cases himself, with the assistance of ad hoc panels set up by himself.
Also in 2018, Pope Francis sent Archbishop Scicluna to Chile to investigate the bishops there. After receiving his report, the Holy Father said that his repeated mistakes in Chile were the result of being “badly informed,” even though on crucial matters he had been asked by both the Chilean bishops and mass protests not to proceed.
As a consequence, the entire Chilean episcopate offered their resignations, eight of which were accepted, and two bishops have been dismissed from the clerical state.
In September 2018, after a horrific summer of sexual-abuse news in the United States, and after the complete fiasco of the Chile affair in the spring, the Holy Father announced the sex-abuse summit for February 2019. It is thus the sixth major initiative of the pontificate.
Cardinal O’Malley’s Criticism
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Cardinal O’Malley complained at the highest levels in Rome that Archbishop Scicluna’s appeals panel had reduced the punishments of priests found guilty of abusing minors. There wasn’t zero tolerance, he claimed, despite the Holy Father advocating just that.
“If this gets out, it will cause a scandal,” the Journal quoted Cardinal O’Malley as telling Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and other Vatican officials, citing an unnamed person present during the meeting.
As for the processes to judge bishops, set up in 2015 and 2016 only to be abandoned almost immediately, Cardinal O’Malley told The Atlantic that, despite his detailed proposals, the Pope “was convinced to do it another way.”
“We’re still waiting for the procedures to be clearly articulated,” Cardinal O’Malley said. It was a devastating assessment of failure on the key issue of bishops’ accountability. After two official announcements going back four years, including one that was actually legislated, not even Cardinal O’Malley knows what the Holy Father intends to do. Bishops’ accountability will not be a key part of the summit this week.
It is not clear why Cardinal O’Malley, in the lead-up to the summit, would raise the fundamental questions he did. Yet it certainly indicates a frustration with the role of the commission he heads.
That the summit does not include him as a speaker, nor other commission members on its preparatory council, seems to confirm Cardinal O’Malley’s frustrations over a lack of follow-through.
Indeed, it may be that the commission itself has met the fate of the Holy Father’s other sex-abuse initiatives, which offered a bold beginning only to be abandoned later.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.