Vatican Sets the Stage for Abuse Summit

Cardinal Cupich and Archbishop Scicluna laid out the blueprint in a news conference Feb. 18.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — a member of the four-member preparatory committee for the Feb. 21-24 meeting —  addresses a Feb. 18 Vatican news conference.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — a member of the four-member preparatory committee for the Feb. 21-24 meeting — addresses a Feb. 18 Vatican news conference. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s summit on the “Protection of Minors in the Church” will be dedicated to responsibility, accountability and transparency, but organizers have downplayed expectations, saying it will not be a “three-day wonder” solving all problems related to the scourge.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta — two members of a four-member preparatory committee for the Feb. 21-24 meeting — also told reporters Monday that the meeting will not focus on abuse of vulnerable adults or seminarians, nor on the role homosexuality plays in such abuse or its cover-up.

Instead, they emphasized what follows the meeting in sharing good practices and implementing measures will be the “essence” of the gathering, so the Church “can be a safe place for minors again.”

“It’s not only a question of coming here for three days and learning what you do,” said Archbishop Scicluna, the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with clerical sex-abuse cases, “but at least having the necessary information that will keep you going when you go back to your diocese or your community.”

This week’s meeting is being held following a raft of abuse scandals that have come to light in recent years in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Australia, including the sexual abuse committed by the disgraced and now laicized former cardinal-archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick. 

The meeting’s moderator, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told journalists at today’s news conference that the much-anticipated summit will be attended by 190 participants, including 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world, as well as leaders of the Oriental Catholic Churches, 15 bishops not belonging to a bishops’ conference, and 12 and 10 respective superiors general of men and women religious. (See the full list of participants here).


Three-Day Program

Father Lombardi explained the program for the three days will be centered on the three subject areas, beginning with “responsibility” on the first day, featuring presentations from Cardinal Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, Archbishop Scicluna and Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, Colombia.

The second day will be dedicated to “accountability,” with talks from Cardinal Cupich, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, and professor Linda Ghisoni, under-secretary at the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

The third day, dedicated to “transparency,” will feature presentations from Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany, and the veteran Mexican Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki.

All the talks will be interspersed with working groups divided according to language, meetings with survivors who will speak privately with participants, and videos shown of testimonies from abuse victim-survivors.

Notably absent from the presentation lineup is Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston and any representative from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which the cardinal heads, although it is believed the commission helped prepare for the meeting.

In the evening of the final day will be a penitential liturgy, followed the next morning with a Mass with a homily delivered by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference. Both liturgies will take place in the Sala Regia in the Vatican rather than at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The summit will be one of “solidarity, humility and penitence,” Father Lombardi says on the website dedicated to the event. “This is certainly a first meeting of its kind, yet it is also clearly part of the process of synodality that Pope Francis is keen to have at the heart of his plan to reform the Church.”


‘United Response’

Faced with the global problem, the Pope wanted this meeting to determine a “united response at the universal level,” Father Lombardi, the former longtime papal spokesman, writes. “The entire Church must choose to live in solidarity, above all with the victims, with their families and with the ecclesial communities wounded by the scandals.”

He also warns against those who say “too much weight” has been given to this theme, saying “that would be the wrong road to take.” If the problem is “not fully confronted in all its aspects, the Church will continue to find itself facing one crisis after another; her credibility and that of all priests will remain seriously wounded,” he writes.

The Vatican is carrying out a full-scale media operation for the event, issuing a wealth of information, including a 45-page press kit complete with hyperlinks to key documents and speeches and daily press briefings.

Archbishop Scicluna emphasized to reporters Monday the importance of prayer because “we need all the help we can get,” adding that the flock “is not our own; it is the flock of Jesus Christ.”

He also said “people need to be on the same page with the Holy Father, who has so many times spoken in a clear and unequivocal way” about making the Church a safe place for minors. If you are not part of that commitment, he added, “you’re going to be held responsible.”

Emphasis was made about the global nature of this event and the need to apply whatever comes out of it to a diversity of cultural contexts.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Pontifical Gregorian University and also a member of the organizing committee for this week’s meeting, highlighted a questionnaire given to bishops ahead of the summit.

The survey, he said, sought to identify the different perceptions of abuse around the world, and its results, to be given sometime after the meeting, would be used to “help achieve a synodal Church.”


Vulnerable Adults?

But it was not clear at today’s news conference how much the meeting will deal with two other issues of concern: protection of vulnerable adults, including seminarians from clerical sex abuse, and the role of homosexuality in the abuse crisis, including speculated homosexual networks of protection that are seen as perpetuating a cover-up culture.

The sexual abuse of seminarians, which the Church views as a grievous sin and a kind of spiritual incest, became a prominent issue of concern following the emergence of scandals surrounding not only McCarrick, who was laicized last week for abusing seminarians and minors, but also other cases of clergy abuse of seminarians around the world.

As a result, the initial title for the summit when it was announced in September was “protection of minors and vulnerable adults,” and assurances were made during briefings at the youth synod last October that the abuse of vulnerable adults would be discussed at this meeting.

But Cardinal Cupich did not say such abuse would be specifically discussed, instead commenting that what will be learned at the meeting “can be applied across the board,” including “issues of misbehavior on the part of clerics with vulnerable adults or other adults.”

“We’re focusing these days on those who have so little voice, young people, minors, who don’t have a voice and are kept in silence, so this is about making sure that their voice is heard,” Cardinal Cupich said. “That’s why we’re focusing the attention on them.”

Archbishop Scicluna said the meeting “has to be focused” on minors, but a “beneficial effect” of that could be applied to “other forms of misconduct.” He said the organizers did not wish to “underestimate or devalue” other kinds of abuse, but they did want to stay “focused — or otherwise we’ll get distracted and won’t do what we need to do.”

Cardinal Cupich said the Pope “is asking that we focus on the task at hand,” and if “we begin to inflate expectations by including other topics, then we’re not going to achieve the goals.”



Connected with this topic is the role homosexuality plays in the abuse, particularly of seminarians. A number of reports around the world, including the 2004 U.S. John Jay Report, have put the rate of clergy abuse of males, usually teenagers, at around 80% of all clerical sex-abuse cases.

In two essays in the Register this week, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States and whistleblower of an alleged homosexual network among high-level Vatican officials, both expressed a wish that the issue be addressed.

Cardinal Cupich said “it’s important” to “recognize” the percentage of abuse involving male-on-male sex abuse, but added that the John Jay Report and other country reports have “indicated that homosexuality itself is not a cause,” but rather “a matter of opportunity” and poor formation.

“Some say there is homosexuality in the priesthood,” he said, but “you can see already it is not as a result of being homosexual you abuse, that homosexual people are more prone to abuse children than straight people.”

In answer to another question on screening out potential abusers, Cardinal Cupich said it is “important not in terms of the issue of homosexuality,” but, rather, “if someone has an attitude with regard to human sexuality that is not in keeping with the Church or with regard to the protection of children.”

If other factors make them “high risk,” that has to be “taken into consideration,” he said, but it is “not a particular screening that has to do with one sexual orientation as the major factor.”

Father Zollner told reporters it is not possible to “identify with precision” if a person is “homosexual” or is a “high-risk” case, more likely to commit sexual abuse.

Cardinal Cupich, responding to whether he agreed with the hypothesis that prelates cover up abuse because they themselves are engaged in illicit sexual behavior, and therefore are unwilling to denounce each other, said it is “a hypothesis, and hypotheses have to be proven.” He added: “I think that is something that has to remain at the level of hypothesis.”

Archbishop Scicluna declined to discuss possible homosexual reasons connected with the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, but underlined the importance of transparency to ensure cover-up is a “no-go” that has to be condemned “without any hesitation.” Any code of silence, or omerta (a code of silence used by the mafia), as he has referred to it in the past, has to be broken, he said.

He also made a point of thanking the media in achieving such transparency.

“I would like to thank the media for so many investigative stories that have brought this topic to where it should belong,” he said.

Cardinal Cupich said that, overall, the meeting will be part of an effort “to close whatever loopholes there are” so bishops know “on an individual basis” their responsibilities.

Referring to “As a Loving Mother,” Pope Francis’ 2016 motu proprio on handling clerical sex abuse, which included an outline of procedures for holding bishops accountable, the cardinal said this meeting will be about giving bishops “concrete steps” so they “understand exactly what’s expected, because they are going to be held accountable.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.