3 Keys to Credibility at the Upcoming Sex Abuse Summit

There will be little real progress unless the summit tackles these three issues — including the “forbidden” topic of homosexuality

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

The summit on clerical sexual abuse called by the Holy Father is scheduled for Feb. 21-24. While no meeting of four days can be expected to fully resolve such a devastating scandal, a central goal must be to begin the very long process of restoring credibility to Church leaders in Rome and around the world. The needle on the credibility gauge is currently near zero. For this meeting to have a credibility of its own and to begin restoring credibility in the wider Church, a number of things must be forthrightly addressed. Let’s look at three.


(1) The summit must focus on more than the sexual abuse of minors. Unfortunately, a recent Vatican communiqué does not seem to envision this; it titles the meeting “The Protection of Minors in the Church”. While the Church should certainly speak to this issue and have clear policies protecting minors, much of the recently reported abuse has involved predation on vulnerable and/or subordinate adults. Seminarians as well as younger priests and religious have come forward in significant numbers in a kind of ecclesial version of the #MeToo movement. Unwanted sexual attention, abuse, and attempted seduction by bishops, priests, seminary faculty, religious superiors, and others in positions of authority must be addressed. There have also been numerous cases of clergy using their status to sexually seduce or abuse those in their pastoral care (for example, here and here).

In the secular world there is a growing recognition that relationships among adults are not always equal. Doctors and therapists, for example, are not on equal footing with those who seek their help, and it is unethical for them to use their status to exploit those in their care. Such clients, though adults, are often vulnerable to the sexual advances of influential professionals in their lives; a body of law is developing to protect them and others in subordinate roles (e.g., in the workplace). A similar dynamic can set up with priests and Church leaders if safeguards are not in place.

In the Church there are some prelates and other leaders who seem less concerned with such cases because they do not involve minors—this diminished concern must end. For a cleric or religious of any rank to act out sexually with any adult is a violation of the 6th commandment as well as of the vow of celibacy. Further, the sexual involvement of a priest with anyone who calls him “Father” is rightly called spiritual incest.

For the clerical sexual abuse summit to have credibility and application, a plan must be set to establish strong and clear norms for the discipline of clerics or religious who have sexually abused or exploited anyone—minor or adult.


(2) The summit must establish a way forward to establishing greater accountability for bishops. Since 2002, there have been review boards in the U.S. consisting of both laity and clergy to assess accusations against priests. Such boards have also helped to ensure that dioceses are held accountable for following policies to prevent the sexual abuse of minors and follow a zero-tolerance policy for priests who have abused minors. It has become painfully obvious, however, that no similar mechanism exists for bishops. The United States bishops, to their credit, did propose procedures to establish review boards for bishops, but Roman officials directed them to suspend any vote on the matter, citing the upcoming February summit. This sudden move embarrassed most bishops in the U.S., infuriated many faithful Catholics, and thwarted an important step for the bishops to begin rebuilding trust.

To date, the communiqués and statements from Rome have said little or nothing about structures of accountability for bishops. Papal spokesman Alessandro Gisotti, speaking to the goals for the meeting, said it is “fundamental for the Holy Father” that, when the participating bishops return to their dioceses, they “understand the laws to be applied and that they take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, to care for the victims, and to make sure that no case is covered up or buried.”

Who will hold bishops accountable for this and how? What recourse will the faithful have if bishops, either through neglect or malice, do not enforce the norms or act to prevent abuse? What reporting mechanisms will ensure that bishops are held accountable? To date, the faithful and lower ranking clergy have had little success when reporting problems; often their concerns have disappeared into a bureaucratic vacuum. Occasionally, offending bishops were sent to Rome only to be rehabilitated and even promoted. The Holy Father himself has a history of doing this (for example here and here). To be fair, such things occurred even before Francis’ papacy. (Most notable in this regard was the appointment of Cardinal Bernard Law to Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome by Pope John Paul II in 1984.)

Where can the faithful report their concerns and have any reasonable assurance that bishops will be held accountable and not simply reassigned or even promoted when they offend, either by personal sinful behavior or by failing to protect the faithful from predatory clergy in their dioceses?

It may not be possible for a full policy on bishops’ accountability to be developed by the end of the summit, but for the sake of credibility and justice a plan for doing so must be clearly laid out. Obviously, any policies must respect the divine constitution of the Church—wherein the clergy are ordained to teach, govern and sanctify—but there is no reason that laity cannot be part of a review board to help ensure accountability. Ultimately, complaints must still be submitted to the Pope or other disciplinary bodies in the Church, and procedures of Canon Law must be followed.


(3) The summit must speak to the link between homosexuality and sexual abuse by clergy. I have written before on this topic (here) and do not intend to restate everything from that post. However, no discussion or policy can be credible if it ignores or seeks to sidestep the fact that over 80 percent of the abuse has been homosexual predation. Neither can we ignore the nearly 20 percent of the victims who were women or girls. However, since the large majority of victims were post-pubescent males, it is not possible to ignore the connection to homosexuality and remain credible. The most likely conclusion is that same-sex environments such as seminaries, houses of formation, rectories, convents, and monasteries are not healthy environments for those who experience same-sex attraction. The Pope, too, has expressed that the priesthood and the consecrated life are not appropriate places for those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies (more on that here).

There also must be a strong and clear policy to address the abuse of women and girls: clerics of any rank who abuse or take advantage of women/girls or who have a pattern of being unchaste with them are not fit to continue in active ministry.

It is not a good sign that one of the leaders of the summit, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, is dismissive of any connection of this crisis to homosexuality. He prefers to point to vague ideas like “clericalism,” a term often bandied about but difficult to define. Clericalism is more a general attitude of superiority or arrogance that may manifest itself in many ways other than sexual. If there is a connection of clericalism to this crisis, it is in the cover-up of sexual abuse not that it is the cause. By analogy, imagine someone afflicted with clericalism who thinks it is beneath him to pay for meals, so he just leaves restaurants without paying his bill. Or perhaps he thinks that he is entitled to use parish funds for personal expenses. Merely saying that he is afflicted with clericalism doesn’t really explain or change the fact that he is a thief and an embezzler. Similarly, clericalism doesn’t explain or change the fact that certain men have deep-seated sexual disorders or are morally lax in the sexual realm.

Assigning blame to nebulous words such as “clericalism” is a retreat into obscurity and a refusal to face the real issues. God’s people were not born yesterday; they see right through this obfuscation.


In a phrase, credibility is the key. There will be little credibility or real progress unless the summit tackles these three issues—including the “forbidden” topic of homosexuality—and plans are developed to establish policies and structures to address them. A four-day summit is not going to comprehensively resolve all these issues, but it is essential to establish a plan for examining them and to set target dates for the development and implementation of policies to deal with them.

Sadly, the communiqués from Rome have not spoken to most of these issues. Granted, the communiqués are meant to be general in nature, but addressing the sexual abuse of adults (not just minors), the connection of homosexuality to most of the abuse, and accountability structures for bishops is a sine qua non for a credible summit. Anything less will reinforce the understandable cynicism among the faithful, likely ignite anger, and lower the needle on the credibility gauge to absolute zero.