Vatican Summit Promises Course Change on Sexual Abuse, Concrete Actions Pending

The 114 episcopal conference presidents taking part in the Feb. 21-24 gathering mostly welcomed the meeting’s outcome and the rare opportunity to discuss face-to-face these issues from a global perspective.

A crucifix is in view at a penitential service with Pope Francis on the fourth and final day of the meeting on 'The Protection of Minors in the Church' at the Vatican Feb. 24.
A crucifix is in view at a penitential service with Pope Francis on the fourth and final day of the meeting on 'The Protection of Minors in the Church' at the Vatican Feb. 24. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY — Three concrete initiatives to better handle clerical sex abuse, greater powers to help the laity hold bishops accountable, and changes to a papal decree aimed at closing legal loopholes that have allowed bishops to cover up such crimes with impunity, were some tangible achievements of the recent Vatican summit on child protection in the Church.

The 114 episcopal conference presidents taking part in the Feb. 21-24 gathering mostly welcomed the meeting’s outcome and the rare opportunity to discuss face-to-face these issues from a global perspective.

The meeting was “very useful, very necessary and very timely,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India, told reporters at the end of the conference. He welcomed bringing the “whole world together” to address the abuse problem, which is now a “common priority.” All are now conscious “this is a real serious problem,” he added.

“These have been challenging, fruitful days,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a Feb. 25 statement. “We owe survivors an unyielding vigilance that we may never fail them again.”

But many others were disappointed, angry or frustrated with the meeting’s outcome. Victim-survivor groups largely viewed the event as not radical enough and a deflection from effectively preventing abuse, achieving real accountability and ending a cover-up culture in the Church.

“My fears have been answered,” Shaun Dougherty, who was abused by a priest when he was 10 to 13 years old, told the Register. “I don’t believe that the bishops and cardinals are any more equipped to police themselves than they were last week, before the conference began.”

The meeting was also overshadowed by accusations that Pope Francis had himself been covering up for clerical abusers, including most recently Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, accused of inappropriate behavior with seminarians and having homosexual pornography on his cellphone.

Others saw discussion of ex-cardinal and priest Theodore McCarrick’s crimes of abuse of minors, seminarians and priests of a homosexual nature as deliberately omitted and suppressed. This was despite outrage over the McCarrick scandal providing much of the impetus for the summit. It was also seen as a lost opportunity in dealing with causes of abuse that encompass vulnerable adults as well as minors.

Pope Francis opened the meeting expressing hope that the participants would “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice” and that they discuss “this evil” in a “synodal, frank and in-depth manner.” He also issued 21 points to consider as “starting points” for discussions on improving the handling of abuse cases, at least half of which reflected the American experience since the crisis first broke in 2002.

The meeting’s program centered on nine presentations on a theme dedicated to each of the three days: responsibility on the first, accountability on the second, and transparency on the third, interspersed by working-group sessions and testimonies from abuse victims.

The presenters — five cardinals, one archbishop, a religious sister and two laywomen — covered a wide range of issues: the need for the Church to draw close to the wounds of victims, acknowledge faults and mistakes, and ask for forgiveness to regain credibility and ensure children are safe. They highlighted areas of prevention and clarified bishops’ responsibilities and the need for collegiality and synodality in dealing with abuse.

Also proposed was a 12-point proposal for better accountability, including having metropolitan bishops hold other bishops accountable. Other suggestions were revising and possibly rescinding use of the “pontifical secret” in abuse cases and inviting Church leaders to see the media as allies rather than enemies in uncovering abuse and bringing predator priests to justice.

 At a penitential liturgy on the final evening of the summit discussions, bishops made an examination of conscience, confessed to covering up abuse, and asked for pardon. In his homily at the summit’s closing Mass the next day, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, acknowledged that at times abuse victims have been seen “as the enemy” and that “we have not loved them; we have not blessed them.”

In comments to reporters, he said it is “very clear now” that anyone in the Catholic Church who thinks they can “get away with sexual abuse of the young and vulnerable has absolutely nowhere to go.”

Many of the participants said they were particularly touched by the seven testimonies shared by abuse victims during the meeting, most of them women.

The meeting, an unprecedented gathering of so many Church leaders to discuss the scourge, caused a “qualitative and quantitative leap,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the summit’s preparatory committee, told reporters. He especially welcomed the meeting between one abuse victim and the bishops, which he called “deeply moving.”

“This has really reached the heart level,” said Father Zollner. “And if you get to that level, you cannot be as you were before.”

In his closing address Feb. 24, Pope Francis outlined an eight-point plan in an “all-out battle” against the sexual abuse of minors in order to “turn this evil into an opportunity for purification.”

Among the proposals were a “change of mentality” to focus on protecting children rather than “protecting the institution,” a genuine purification beginning with “self-accusation,” and ensuring that seminarians and clergy are not enslaved to an addiction to pornography.

The concrete measures revealed at the end of the meeting were a forthcoming motu proprio (papal decree) “on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons” on the part of the Roman Curia and Vatican City State (the document is already drafted and to be published “soon”); a handbook, or vademecum, from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to help bishops clearly understand their duties and tasks; and the creation of “task forces” of experts to help bishops’ conferences who may lack resources to deal with such crimes.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who chairs the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told reporters Feb. 22 that the Vatican was also working on a “clarification” to Pope Francis’ 2016 motu proprio, “As a Loving Mother,” to better hold bishops and religious superiors accountable when they mishandled abuse cases.

In his statement on the conference, Cardinal DiNardo stressed the need to “intensify the Dallas Charter,” a 2002 document that committed the U.S. bishops to providing a “safe environment” for children. He also spoke of the need to establish specific “protocols for handling accusations against bishops, user-friendly reporting mechanisms, and the essential role transparency must play in the healing process.” Achieving these goals requires “the active involvement and collaboration of the laity,” he said. The Church “needs their prayers, expertise and ideas.”

But the measures achieved at the summit failed to appease abuse victims who wanted to see much firmer “zero-tolerance” commitments on bishops and religious superiors who cover up such crimes. The need to hold bishops accountable has largely been neglected in comparison to dealing with abusive clergy, and a 2016 proposal by the Pope to create a tribunal to try negligent bishops was dropped when it met opposition from bishops and Vatican bureaucracy (although some canonists have argued the system works better without the need for tribunals).

“I will never agree to the hierarchy policing themselves,” said Dougherty, who was abused by a priest-teacher in the 1980s in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. “I don’t trust them to do the right thing. The majority of clergy still belong to the good old boys’ club,” which needs to be addressed “for [policing] to be successful.”

Abuse victim Mark Rozzi, 47, from Reading, Pennsylvania, said all bishops guilty of covering up crimes of clergy abuse “must be removed.” He said bishops have “always thought themselves to have been above the law,” but a “successful Church” is one where “truth is the ultimate authority, not the bishops.”

In addition to survivors’ disappointment regarding holding bishops fully accountable, others were also disillusioned by what they saw as the meeting’s failure to adequately tackle root causes beyond blaming such abuse on “clericalism.”

The meaning and nature of sin was hardly raised, they observed; neither were breaches of the moral law, lack of trust in God’s grace, the serious problem of homosexuality, especially in the clergy, the procedures of episcopal appointments and the role of the bishops. Also omitted was what some see as the chief underlying cause of abuse: a collapse in upholding the Church’s moral doctrine, especially when it comes to sexuality and chastity.

“That’s the root, and it’s an old problem dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who, with Cardinal Raymond Burke, sent an open letter on the eve of the summit urging bishops to end their silence on moral corruption in the Church and return to upholding the divine and natural law.

Three bishops said they tried to raise the issue of homosexuality in the working groups but were unable to mention the issue or “get it through,” according to one of them, because they had to “stay focused” on the issue of child protection. This was despite a widespread view, noted by Cardinal Brandmüller and others, that around 80% of clerical sex abuse was being perpetrated by males on male teenagers in the U.S. and parts of Europe.

Observers also noticed that the majority of testimonies were from women, possibly to avoid what some have called “the pink elephant in the room” — the topic of actively homosexual priests and a subculture of homosexuality in seminaries and other Church institutions.

Cardinal Brandmüller said this is a “terrible problem” but believed discussion of homosexuality was suppressed, as it would have “become dangerous” for the organizers due to the “evident” existence of homosexual networks in the Vatican.

He therefore argued for continued “strong, decisive and clear” exposure of the abuse, cover-ups and networks. “We live in hope and trust in divine Providence,” he said.

Another senior Vatican prelate wondered how any of what was discussed at the meeting could proceed without holding the Pope accountable for his alleged mishandling of the Bishop Zanchetta and McCarrick cases and other recent accusations that he ignored the abuse of deaf children.

Others, however, have stressed that the summit is just the beginning and that, according to Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who took a leading role in preparing the meeting, the meeting’s follow-up would be its most significant aspect.

The Church is a “huge ship,” said Father Zollner, and to “change her course takes a lot of effort and energy” that will need longer than a “couple of months.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.