In the lead-up to last month’s four-day Vatican summit on the sexual abuse of minors, organizers made a concerted effort to lower expectations. A crisis decades in the making, the full scope of which is still coming into view, would not be solved in one meeting, they insisted. There would be no sweeping policy changes from on high, no declaration from Pope Francis that definitively addressed every concern about how the church handles sexual abuse, no “closure.” But even if such a gathering was never intended to do everything, it’s still fair to ask whether it did enough.
The unsatisfying answer is that no one knows—yet.
The effectiveness of the summit may only be revealed in the weeks, months, and perhaps years ahead, after the bishops have returned home and continue—or in some cases, start—the work of responding to, and safeguarding against, sexual abuse. It’s an approach in line with what Francis once described as a “healthy decentralization,” recognizing that bishops in different parts of the world might need to develop different strategies, perhaps above all when it comes to how the church relates to civil authorities. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lackadaisical, “hands-off” approach. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will provide the bishops with a handbook that clearly lays out their responsibilities for dealing with accusations of abuse—and, as Austen Ivereigh points out, the 2016 motu propio “As a Loving Mother” makes it clear they’ll be removed if they fail. It was also announced at the summit that special task forces would be created to offer bishops additional support. And there were proposals for how the bishops themselves, along with religious superiors, should be held accountable. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich offered a framework, rooted in synodality, for discussion and discernment about such reforms.