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.
One line in particular from Cupich stood out: his claim that the “structural elements” of reform would not be enough unless “we anchor all our deliberations in the piercing pain of those who have been abused and of the families who have suffered with them.” It showed that the summit organizers understand that the problem of abuse and its cover-up cannot be disentangled from clericalism, which can be mitigated but not cured by better policies. The summit aimed most of all at changing the hearts of bishops, who must enter into the pain of the people of God and put the care of souls above their reputations and institutional prerogatives. It is tempting to dismiss this language of catechesis and conversion as a cynical evasion, a way of substituting pious words for genuine accountability. In the United States, where the abuse crisis has dragged on for decades, such talk may sound hollow. But Christians especially should realize that real, enduring change always requires conviction and repentance.
And the rest of what happened at the summit should have left the bishops deeply aware of what is at stake—especially those bishops from parts of the world where church leaders have not yet confronted the abuse in their midst. One report described the “stunned, shameful silence” of bishops as a survivor described “a lifetime of trauma, eating disorders, depression, and suicide attempts” after being abused for five years by a priest. “I, who loved coloring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed,” she said. Another important moment came when a Nigerian nun, Sister Veronica Openibo, lambasted church leaders for their failures as Francis sat just a few feet away. “How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?” she asked. She demanded that bishops acknowledge the way their “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a church.” It was striking to see a nun openly criticize the all-male hierarchy—a small but important shift from the days when outspoken sisters were rarely seen and never heard at the Vatican.
For all the real progress made at the summit, however, Francis himself ended it on an unfortunate note. He began his closing remarks with a long preamble emphasizing that the sexual abuse of minors is not confined to the church, that it is “a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies” and often takes place in families. Oddly, he made sure to point out that child sacrifice took place in “pagan rites.” This might all be true, but it felt like a flinch—the kind of defensiveness that has too often been used to contextualize away the church’s crimes. Later in the speech, Francis underscored the “spiritual means” of confronting the wickedness of abuse: “humiliation, self-accusation, prayer, and penance.” This was far more reassuring. Let’s hope that he and every bishop who attended the summit take that truly to heart.