What Will the Pope's February Summit on Sexual Abuse Cover?

The meeting of the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world is scheduled to be held at the Vatican Feb. 21-24 on the ‘protection of minors and vulnerable adults.’

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis Sept. 12 called for a special meeting in early 2019 with the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to address the clergy sex-abuse crisis, with an official theme of the “protection of minors and vulnerable adults.”

In the collective assessment of informed commentators who spoke with the Register following the announcement, the planned meeting will be effective only if its mandate includes the drafting of norms to hold bishops accountable and a discussion of how central homosexuality has been to the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

The Pope announced the meeting, to be held at the Vatican Feb. 21-24, after discussing the problem of clergy sexual abuse with his council of cardinals advising him on Church reform. Other details about the meeting have yet to be released officially.

Ernesto Caffo, a member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, told The New York Times Sept. 12 that the meeting’s focus will be on the Church’s bishops, seeking to advise them about how to better spot and respond to clergy abuse, and formulating mechanisms by which bishops can be held accountable for their own sexual misconduct or their failures to properly deal with clergy cases that have occurred under their episcopal authority.

According to Caffo, who is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry in Italy, the planned meeting represents “a crucial decision by the Pope because the conferences play a crucial role in implementing all the prevention measures to protect against sexual abuse in the Church.” He said the meeting would involve “a plan of action that is common in Asia or in the United States or Europe,” the Times reported.


Allegations Against Bishops

The Vatican’s move follows a recent series of high-profile clerical-abuse revelations, including the Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report, which asserted that more than 300 priests abused minors over seven decades and that those crimes were covered up by bishops in six dioceses; reports of thousands of historical clergy sex-abuse cases over a similar period in Germany and the Netherlands; and further cases in Chile, Australia and elsewhere, including the Pope’s reported involvement in a high-profile Argentinian case that came to national attention while he was serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The February meeting will also be held in the context of revelations that some bishops allegedly have been either involved in abuse or in subsequent cover-ups. Most prominently, this includes the archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick.

In June, it was disclosed that the Archdiocese of New York had received “credible and substantiated” allegations that Archbishop McCarrick had sexually abused a minor male altar server during the early 1970s and that, during the time he served as a bishop in New Jersey, he had also faced allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians and priests that later resulted in a pair of legal settlements.

This was followed by claims made in late August by the former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, that from shortly after the time of his election Pope Francis had been informed about Archbishop McCarrick’s abuses, as well as about measures reportedly put in place against him by Pope Benedict XVI, and that the Holy Father nevertheless gave the archbishop renewed influence in the Church. At publication time, the Holy Father had declined to respond to those allegations. Meanwhile, in Honduras, the Pope in July accepted the resignation of Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Pineda of Tegucigalpa, following allegations he had sexually abused seminarians. Before his resignation, Bishop Pineda had been defended by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, who is also the head of the Pope’s  council of cardinals.

Reflecting the urgency of the situation, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, flew to Rome to meet the Holy Father Sept. 13, after which the cardinal said it had been a “lengthy and fruitful” meeting, although few other details were made public.

Cardinal DiNardo met with the Pope along with Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the vice president of the USCCB; and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, the USCCB’s general secretary.

The Register contacted all three U.S. bishops, as well as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, for comment about the announcement of the February conference at the Vatican regarding clergy abuse. None of the bishops had responded by the time this article went to press.



Other informed Americans who spoke with the Register supported the convening of the February meeting, but with some caveats.

Veteran Church commentator Russell Shaw is skeptical the February conference will serve “any useful purpose.” He believes it may have been called to “give the appearance of doing something.” Still, he believes it could be significant if it leads to a drafting of norms on handling the accountability of bishops.

Such accountability “would be greatly enhanced by being mandated by the Pope, with appropriate norms accompanied by sanctions for those who fail to comply,” said Shaw, who served as secretary for public affairs for the U.S. bishops’ conference from 1969 to 1987.

Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, a former executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Doctrine, told the Register he would be more hopeful if, before the meeting, “real movement” had been made to hold bishops accountable “through investigation of the McCarrick scandal.” By the time of the February summit, he believes it needs to be made clear who knew what and when, who promoted Archbishop McCarrick, and whether the allegations of Archbishop Viganò are true or false. But if that doesn’t happen, and Cardinal DiNardo is “stonewalled” from getting to the “truth and the heart of the problem,” then Father Weinandy said Catholics will know the conference is “primarily a media event.”



The American priest believes it will become clear “how serious” Pope Francis is about tackling the problem if the February meeting addresses “the issue of active homosexuality among the clergy and the bishops.” Citing both the 2004 John Jay Report on clerical sex abuse in the U.S. and this year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, Father Weinandy said it has “become quite evident that priests and bishops engage in homosexual activity.”

The Pope and the bishops are willing to reaffirm their condemnations of child abuse, Father Weinandy added, because there is broad and unqualified agreement about the gravity of that element of the clergy abuse crisis, whereas criticizing homosexual activity is something “secular liberal society will not tolerate.”

The collective reluctance of many bishops to address the matter of homosexuality, he said, can be seen in the use of phrases such as “vulnerable adults.” But unless homosexuality is addressed “in a thorough manner, the laity will rightly perceive the meeting as merely a sham,” Father Weinandy warned.

Both Catholic author Philip Lawler and Orthodox writer Rod Dreher agreed that homosexuality must be on the meeting’s agenda.

Abuse of young people is only “one part of the overall problem,” said Lawler, author of the 2010 book The Faithful Departed that charted the fall of Boston’s Catholic culture following the sex-abuse scandals there. The Church’s hierarchy, he said, has yet to address two other aspects, which he defined as the “influence of the homosexual lobby within the clergy and the negligence (or worse) of diocesan bishops and religious superiors.”

Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option, a book on living the faith in a post-Christian context, told the Register that while he was grateful to the Pope for giving a “global focus” to the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, “sexual misconduct, including self-protective networks of gay priests, is a cancer in the Church.”

The modern internet-based culture of transparency is “going to be with us forever,” he said, and so it will be “impossible to keep these things hidden.”

“There is no work more urgent for the Church than to tackle in a serious and sustained way the sexual corruption within the ranks of the clergy,” said Dreher, who left the Catholic Church as a direct result of what he perceived as its institutional failure to adequately address the clergy abuse crisis after its scope became known in 2002. “Little that the Church says or does will have much effect until and unless the moral credibility of its pastors is restored.”


The Meeting’s Timing

As case after case of abuse allegations continue to emerge, Dreher sees “great risk” in delaying the conference until February. Similarly, Lawler would like the meeting brought forward as the Church faces this “crisis of confidence — a crisis of faith,” and he said it would make “perfect sense” to replace the Oct. 3-28 youth synod with a synod on this issue instead.

Shaw agrees about the urgency of the situation and, in fact, would like the youth synod to be canceled “since nothing in the least useful is likely to happen there.” But he said trying to convene the abuse gathering as early as October would be “too soon for the necessary preparatory work to be done.”

For his part, Father Weinandy believes the bishops’ meeting, whenever it is scheduled, “could be a great success — providing clarity and hope based upon truth.”

“Ultimately,” he said, “the Church needs to see — especially the laity — that there is an authentic call to holiness within the Church among all of its members and that this call to holiness is founded upon the words of Jesus — repentance and faith in him as the only Lord and universal Savior.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.