“Pope Lowers Expectations for Next Month’s Sex Abuse Summit”—the Associated Press headline may not have been heart-lifting, but it was fair. During Pope Francis’s flight back from Panama on January 27, he had told reporters that “we have to deflate the expectations” surrounding the bishops’ first global summit on clerical sex abuse, which is to take place at the Vatican between February 20 and February 24.
Francis described the summit as essentially a “catechesis”: to make church leaders across the world aware of the pain of victims, and their obligations to act against abuser priests, as well as to hear survivors’ testimonies and to pray, penitentially, for the church’s failures. But three days is not a long time, and no one is expecting a revolution. “The problem of abuse will continue,” Francis assured reporters. “It’s a human problem.” No one should be expecting the pope to pull a new solution out of a top hat.
As the Vatican’s press-office director, Alessandro Gisotti, points out, the Vatican meeting is only the latest stage in a long-maturing response. If you thought this was just Rome’s attempt to seize the initiative after the Pennsylvania grand-jury report or the Cardinal McCarrick scandal, forget it. The Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, insists that the issue will be looked at from a “global perspective,” not “solely European and American.” This is just as much about Africa and Asia and Latin America, where they don’t think they have an abuse crisis, but they do.
Still, while Francis may have wanted to “deflate” expectations, he was not saying the meeting does not matter. He thinks it matters very much—just not in the way people might think it does. Before talking about new protocols and procedures, the pope said on the plane, there is something else the bishops have to do: “We must become aware.” For Francis, there is no such thing as simply seeing; what you see depends on how you see, and what you place at the center of your looking. Changing that focus is the task of conversion. Tornielli says it directly: “Norms, laws, codes and procedures…can never be enough if the mentality and the hearts of those who are called to apply them do not change.” Hence, he says, Pope Francis “continues to point out the path of conversion.” Fr. Federico Lombardi, the moderator of the meeting, says that the penitential prayer during the summit will “establish in sincere conversion…true awareness of the suffering and damage suffered by the victims” and thence “the reform of relations within the church.”
This is how Francis, after a difficult 2018 and above all his own experience of misjudgment and mismanagement in the case of Chile, has come to see the abuse crisis. It is much deeper than it looks, for it involves a turning-away from Christ in his people. And it cannot be repaired merely by procedural or judicial mechanisms, necessary as these are. It will require a radical transformation—a turning-back to Christ.