Pope Francis prays in front of a candle in memory of victims of sexual abuse as he visits St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“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.


The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

We’re so used to hearing that Francis is “behind the curve” on the abuse issue. In truth, he is well ahead of it. While most Catholics, not least bishops and religious orders, remain fixated on cleaning up the institution, demonstrating that it is now transparent and accountable and regulated by new measures, the pope has grasped that keeping the focus on the institution in this way is precisely the problem. This is apparent in the texts he addressed to the Chilean bishops and the people of God last year, which in turn draw on his meditations on institutional desolation as a Jesuit back in the 1980s. Both those texts of three decades ago and last year’s letters have been collected and commented on by his Jesuit collaborators in Rome, Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Fr. Diego Fares, in a new book published in Italian and Spanish, Las Cartas de la Tribulación (“The Tribulation Letters”). If the book had come out later, it would doubtless have included Francis’s letter to the U.S. bishops at the start of their retreat at Mundelein seminary.

The heart of the pope’s message is a pithy little sentence that occurs back in his 1980s writings and again in his letters to the bishops of Chile and the United States: “Ideas you discuss, but situations have to be discerned.” Whenever the church faces a time of tribulation, there are various temptations it can succumb to: to recoil into itself, to put up defenses, to blame others, and essentially to argue—with others, and within itself. The church is prone to “ruminating” on its own desolation, lamenting and blaming, and at its worst falls into “victimism,” which, says Francis in his preface to the book, “conceals in its breast the resort to vengeance, which only feeds the evil it pretends to eliminate.”

All these are means of evading the real task, which is to seek the grace that is always on offer in desolation and tribulation: the grace of conversion. By accusing ourselves, not others—in humility, repentance, and self-correction—we open ourselves to that grace. We change. We are converted. We see where we went wrong. And with that new sight comes the chance to change course. The church’s task is not to lament and condemn, but rather to discern and reform.

When Francis stubbornly defended his nomination of Bishop Juan Barros to the Chilean diocese of Osorno, he was caught up in a web of institutional desolation. He was presented by the local church with a false picture, one that concealed the truth not just about the abuser priest Fernando Karadima, but about the widespread corruption and cover-up in many dioceses. Only because of the firestorm of criticism directed at the pope after his continued defense of Barros, and because he realized he could no longer trust the picture he had been given, did he decide to send his chief prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to get at the truth. And only when a broader picture began to emerge—one that Scicluna had not expected to find—could the humble work of conversion begin in Chile. But it was the pope’s own change of focus that allowed him to see that broader picture.

Before the crisis in Chile, the pope had seen the abuse issue the way most people do, as a matter of balancing various principles—listening to victims and ensuring justice, yes, but also presuming the innocence of clergy until they were proven guilty, and minimizing the risk of abuse with new protocols and “best practices.” But Chile taught Francis that the root of the problem was clericalism, and the church’s resistance to the grace of conversion. It was clericalism that was behind the “institutional desolation.” The pope came to see the abuse crisis as “a change of ecclesial center”: away from the church serving Christ in his people, toward the institution serving itself at the expense of the people. At the center of the crisis is a misuse of power: a priest or bishop who seeks to be served rather than to serve soon decides he has the right to claim money, sex, and other goods for himself, and uses his power to hide his misconduct. The abuse is threefold: of power and conscience, as well as of sex. Clericalism turns this chain of sin into a web of corruption in which the institution puts itself and its reputation at the center of its focus, turning away from Christ in the victim of abuse, whose voice is silenced. The church thus becomes “uprooted from the life of the people of God”; it becomes haughty and defensive.


The sex-abuse summit won’t bring immediate results, and many will dismiss it as a talking shop. But look out for the signs of the conversion that it seeks to call forth, and listen carefully to the pope’s closing address.

Through the crisis of sex abuse—the media revelations, the inquiries and investigations—the Holy Spirit has been calling out this corruption, as Nathan did to King David. What matters now is how the church changes in response to the crisis, whether it chooses to discern and to repent, or continues to evade. The evasion mechanisms differ: Francis urges Chile’s bishops not to take refuge in universal abstractions (a Latin-American vice), while warning the U.S. bishops not to focus narrowly on plans and schemes or judicial mechanisms (an American weakness). These do not get at the root of the problem, which is a turning away from Christ and God’s people. Only repentance and conversion can correct this.

New norms, guidelines, and mechanisms will be necessary, but they are by themselves powerless to bring about the metanoia to which the Holy Spirit is calling the church. Only God’s grace and mercy can do this; and these are found in His people. Hence the pope’s call in August to the whole people of God to pray and fast. The people of God is the “immune system” of the church, as he told Chile’s Catholics. If that immune system isn’t working, no amount of procedural reform will be sufficient. Clericalism is a problem that affects every member of the church in one way or another, and so we can expect its solution to involve every member.

If clericalism is the disease, synodality is the cure. Only when the church embraces its identity as what the Second Vatican Council said it was, the people of God, can the clericalist mentality behind the crisis be expunged. This means clergy and the hierarchy serving Christ in the people rather than the people serving priests as if they were Christ. It means getting over the institutional self-involvement that has led to so much desolation and denial, and putting the poor, the hungry, and the abused back at the center of the church’s attention, where they belong.

Hence Francis’s appeal to the faithful in Chile to be “protagonists of the transformation now called for” and to demand “renewed forms of participation,” not as concessions but because the nature of the church itself demands them. He went on to describe a new ecclesial culture in which the most vulnerable are listened to and criticism is not dismissed as treason. This is the “reform of relations” Fr. Lombardi was talking about, and without which no other kind of reform is likely to get very far.

The sex-abuse summit won’t bring immediate results, and many will dismiss it as a talking shop. But look out for the signs of the conversion that it seeks to call forth, and listen carefully to the pope’s closing address. He may be trying to lower our expectations of the summit itself, but more importantly, he is trying to put our hope in true reform.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

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Published in the February 22, 2019 issue: View Contents
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