Pope Francis and prelates from around the world attend a penitential liturgy during a meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican (CNS photo/Evandro Inetti, pool).

Five years ago this month Pope Francis convened the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church at the Vatican. The first-of-its-kind meeting—announced in September 2018—was an acknowledgment of the global dimension of the clerical abuse crisis, which after a year of revelations and reports was becoming a dire threat to Francis’s pontificate. There had come Australia’s Royal Commission report in December 2017, the revelation of abuses in Chile (and the resignation of one-third of that country’s bishops) in January 2018, the McCarrick scandal that summer, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report in August 2018, and the attempt to personally connect Francis to the various scandals—and perhaps force his resignation—by former papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Clearly, something new had to be tried.

Those invited to the summit included the presidents of national bishops’ conferences, the leaders of Eastern Catholic Churches, superiors of men and women religious, and members of the Roman Curia. Most of the participants were male clergy, but there were also ten women religious, and three who would address the meeting. Moderated by former papal spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ, the meeting was meant to establish a common framework among Church leaders regarding responsibility, accountability, and transparency. It was also about listening to victims, some of whom came to Rome and applied pressure via public protests outside the meeting, and about reminding Church leaders of the power of the press—representatives of whom had also been invited to attend and to address the participants as part of the program.

Five years on from February 2019, where do things stand? That the website built for the meeting and to host the materials and documents produced is no longer online isn’t a good sign. But there are many other developments to consider as well.

First are the repeated reminders of the global dimension of the crisis. In the United States, there have since been statewide reports on clerical abuse from Maryland and Illinois. There was the IICSA report in the U.K. in November 2020, and the CIASE report in France in October 2021—which revealed an estimated 333,000 victims over seventy years. In 2023, Spain created an independent commission that reported an estimated 444,000 victims over a similar time period. Portugal and Switzerland published reports that same year. In Germany, Munich, Muenster, Freiburg, and Mainz all published granular, forensic reports on abuse in their dioceses. Italy has taken its own path, one that’s more cautious and circumspect, perhaps fearful of unleashing something like the French report—a “statistical auto de fé,” as church historian Alberto Melloni called it. Overall, it’s interesting to see that these reports all seem to take the period from 1945 to 1950 as the starting point for the crisis. This suggests some self-exculpatory intent, a way to distinguish between a pervasively abusive Catholic Church and the constitutional democracies and open societies in the postwar liberal order—as if sexual abuse did not take place in secular settings and state-run institutions. But it also opens deep questions about the role of Vatican II in the global history of abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1962, during the preparation of the council, the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome proposed a document on child sex abuse, but the commission in charge of the agenda of Vatican II did not take it up.

Reports have been produced by non-European countries as well: Japan in 2020, and New Zealand in 2022. And countries in Latin America have come under scrutiny in part through scholarship and the press; in 2023, for example, the Spanish newspaper El Pais published the diary of an abusive Spanish Jesuit in Bolivia.

There have also been the revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct in lay ecclesial movements: the internal report for Focolare in 2023; Communion and Liberation in 2023; the L’Arche community and founder Jean Vanier; and the Schoenstatt movement, founded by Pater Kentenich. Religious orders and communities held in high regard for their role in the Church of Vatican II and post–Vatican II have come under the microscope: the Dominicans in France in 2023; the Jesuit Marko Rupnik, against whom allegations emerged in 2022, and who was expelled by the Society of Jesus in 2023; and the ecumenical community of Taizè.

It also opens deep questions about the role of Vatican II in the global history of abuse in the Catholic Church.

And following the McCarrick story, there were revelations from and about other high-profile Church figures. In 2022, Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, former archbishop of Bordeaux, former president of the French bishops’ conference, and member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, admitted to “reprehensible acts” with a fourteen-year-old girl thirty-five years before. The highest profile case was that of Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex abuse; he spent 404 days in solitary confinement in his native Australia only to have his convictions overturned in April 2020. Another factor in the “globalization” of the crisis has been new, critical awareness of the Church’s role in colonialism and the “cultural genocide” of native and First Nation peoples. This includes the revelations about Canada’s residential schools in 2021, which led to Pope Francis’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada in July 2022.


Against the backdrop of all of this, what are some of the institutional responses of the Vatican since the February 2019 summit? In May 2019, Francis published the motu proprio Vos Estis, intended to create procedures for investigating and judging cases of sexual abuse in the Church and for holding bishops, religious superiors and others in the case of covering up abuse responsible. Vos Estis was updated in March 2023 to include lay leaders of international associations recognized by the Holy See who might be investigated either for perpetrating abuse themselves, or for failing to investigate or address allegations of abuse or misconduct made in the context of their communities.

In December 2019, Francis abolished the Church’s practice of imposing strict confidentiality rules on the Vatican’s legal proceedings in cases involving clergy sexual abuse or misconduct. At the end of 2019, the Vatican dicastery that grants official recognition to international Catholic lay movements and organizations ordered the groups to develop detailed child-protection guidelines and norms for handling allegations of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. In February 2020, the Vatican announced the creation of a task force to assist bishops’ conferences, religious institutes, and societies of apostolic life in the preparation and updating of guidelines on the protection of minors. In July 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a handbook for bishops for the handling of cases, requiring them to report claims to civil authorities. In May 2021, the pope promulgated the new Book VI of the Code of Canon Law—the penal code—redefining crimes related to the abuse of minors from crimes against duties of clerics to crimes against life, freedom, and human dignity. In March 2022, he promulgated the apostolic constitution for the reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium. This moved the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors from its satellite-like limbo outside of the system of Curia dicasteries and into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith. But that’s resulted in a kind of institutional limbo; it’s not clear whether this move actually constitutes a positive reform or is just “window dressing.”

The overall effect of these institutional reforms is not yet clear. The most delicate issue is the enforcement of Vos Estis and the role of the Protection of Minors committee. Last March, during the second Latin American Congress dedicated to the effective management of cases of sexual abuse, Francis asked the committee for a report indicating the areas in which improvements are needed in Vos Estis’s application. But how could the committee, with its limited staff, possibly have been considered capable of this? This type of overambitious and confused position seems to have been one of the reasons for the resignation from the commission of the most respected expert in safeguarding in the Catholic Church, Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ (director of the Institute of Anthropology–Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University) in March 2023. In a pointed response to the president of the commission, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Zollner raised questions about the commission’s role after the reform of the Curia.

There’s also the question of how the commission is supposed to operate now that it’s a part of the Dicastery of the Faith. Neither Francis nor Cardinal Fernandez, its new prefect, has addressed the relationship. Fernandez wrote in a social-media post that before accepting the appointment, he had explained he didn’t feel qualified to handle the abuse crisis. In his unusual letter of appointment to Fernandez in July 2023, Francis wrote: “Given that for disciplinary matters—especially related to the abuse of minors—a specific Section has recently been created with very competent professionals, I ask you as prefect to dedicate your personal commitment more directly to the main purpose of the Dicastery which is ‘keeping the faith.’” This sounded almost as if Francis was offering reassurance to the reluctant Fernandez—though it was not reassuring for the rest of the Church.

The overall effect of these institutional reforms is not yet clear. The most delicate issue is the enforcement of Vos Estis and the role of the Protection of Minors committee.

This brings us to the evolution, culturally and intellectually, of the Catholic Church’s sensibility to abuse. A wave of new writing and research on the crisis—the theological, historical, and socio-cultural aspects of it—makes it impossible to reduce it to a phenomenon somehow imported from the “outside,” from secular culture, which was the argument made in an April 2019 essay bearing the signature of Benedict XVI. There’s also increased awareness about the nature of abuse, and a determination from religious men and women, priests, and many laypeople with more and more Catholic organizations to identify the roots of the crisis and confront it directly. There are new, creative ways to address its effects by giving voice to victims and survivors, and for providing healing and reconciliation, like Loudfence (an organization that “aims to work with churches to actively foster a culture which is pro-safeguarding and truth telling”), and the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s production of The Passion, a composition reflecting on the spiritual effects of abuse.

And yet: there remains the persistent reluctance or inability of many bishops and other Church leaders to handle contact with victims, abusers, clerics, and the media. Also unaddressed are the impacts of the crisis on the transmission of faith, the spiritual lives of Catholics, and the credibility of the Church—not just among its members, but among the non-Catholic general public and state authorities. In all of the discourse on Church reform in the preparation, celebration, and synthesis report of the Synod on Synodality, the abuse crisis plays only a marginal role.

This extends somewhat to academia as well. As Zollner wrote in the latest issue of the journal Concilium: “[E]ven in the academic world there is still little real sign of an awareness of or readiness for a long-term commitment. There can be no other explanation for the fact that not even in theology faculties around the world has an engagement with the specific theological questions raised by the abuse crisis led to a long-term interest that goes beyond individual initiatives.”

And even with all the new research and writing noted above, comprehensive research on abuse is complicated by ideological polarization in the United States and elsewhere, as well as by rifts within the global Church (between the West and Africa, for example, or between Western and Eastern Europe). Social-science approaches (anthropology, ethnography, cultural and gender studies) and the canonical disciplines of theology (Scripture, patristics, liturgy, sacraments, ecclesiology, systematics) have yet to find a constructive mutual engagement. There is also a tension between much-needed scholarship and much-needed activism on this issue. In this sense, the research on the abuse crisis in the Church is exemplary of the crossroads at which Catholic scholarship finds itself.

But there is something else to consider: the public-relations factor. Researching abuse requires confronting the facts of it directly, especially the toll on the victims, which doesn’t align neatly with the aims of big-donor alumni and other financial patrons whose instinct is to celebrate and protect the reputation of the Church and the orders that sponsor Catholic higher education. In a competitive educational market, and when the model of Catholic higher education, if not the idea of the university itself, is in question, it’s not good for “the brand.” Very few established Catholic theologians, and even fewer administrators of Catholic colleges, have made research on the abuse crisis an institutional and scholarly priority. Researching abuse requires looking at academic theology as an ecclesial mission, which not only challenges the way academia functions today, but would also require a conversion on the part of how Church leaders view theology’s importance in addressing the abuse crisis.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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