The contrast was little short of amazing. On the one hand, you had the experience inside the synod hall by the end of last week’s Vatican abuse summit, with talk of a new resolve and clarity. On the other, you had the scorn from victims’ groups who saw only missed opportunities.
Nothing like this had ever been done before: to use a synodal process to effect a global institutional conversion aimed at overcoming mechanisms of denial and resistance. Inside, 190 church leaders were becoming crusaders against child abuse, a shift that was especially notable among the presidents of bishops’ conferences from Asia and Africa, some of whom began the February 21–24 meeting saying this wasn’t their problem. Yet outside, survivors’ spokespeople said the summit was just a wordy exercise for show, one that avoided the real task.
In fact, it was the victims who had been invited to tell the bishops their stories who were catalysts for the conversion of hearts and minds. Fr. Hans Zollner, the determined and methodical German Jesuit who is the pope’s point man on this issue, spoke at the final press conference about working groups and individuals who told him of the transformation they had undergone after hearing from the survivors—many on video, others in person: “When I hear people from Asia and Africa speaking now, in the same language, with the same determination, saying we need to confront this, own this, do something about it, at home—this is for me the most comforting and hopeful experience and impression I have.” Zollner mentioned an Italian woman who had shared an especially powerful story, breaking down at the end. The bishops, cardinals, and religious-order heads stepped forward to thank and comfort her. Their reaction, Zollner told us, was a “sign that this has reached the heart level, and if it reaches that level you can’t be as you were before.”
The victims’ groups demanded “concrete” measures and didn’t see them, despite the pope promising exactly that. “Why can’t he enact zero-tolerance into church law? He has the power to do that,” complained Peter Isely, who represents a group called Ending Clergy Abuse. Yet if “zero tolerance”—a phrase with many meanings—means holding bishops accountable for failures to act on abuse allegations, then the meeting demonstrated that real progress is underway. For one, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will produce a small handbook, a vademecum, so that every bishop in the world will understand his obligations exactly. If bishops don’t fulfill those obligations, the 2016 motu propio “As a Loving Mother” makes it clear that they will be removed.
To make it easier to report such failures, two measures are likely to be enacted. The first is a proposal from Cardinal Blase Cupich that should make it easier to denounce, investigate, and report on a bishop’s failure to act. (Some version of it is likely to pass the USCCB in June, and will no doubt be copied in other countries.) The second is a plan now being studied by the pope’s C9 advisory body that would create a new dicastery dedicated to coordinating the Vatican’s anti-abuse efforts. According to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who is one of the C9 advisors, this, too, would make it easier to hold bishops accountable.
Fr. Zollner also announced new “task forces” of experts that will parachute into resource-starved or remote dioceses to boost local safeguarding capacities. There will also be changes to the law. The definition of a minor in Vatican City State laws governing child pornography will be raised from fourteen to eighteen, as part of the introduction of laws to protect minors that will align the Vatican with best practices of the church worldwide. These laws would cover, for example, Holy See diplomats. (There have been two cases in recent years of nunciature staff downloading child pornography.)
One reform that looks certain concerns the so-called “pontifical secret” governing trials of abusive priests. The CDF’s adjunct secretary, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, said that whatever is not strictly necessary to protect the good name and privacy of accusers and the accused while trials are underway will be reviewed in the interests of accountability and transparency. This should make it easier to announce when priests have been tried and found guilty, so that victims can know justice has been done.
And it’s not as if there isn’t more to come. The pope gave the bishops and religious leaders twenty-one recommendations culled from pre-summit submissions that included the screening of candidates, the reporting of allegations, and so on. The small groups discussed these and added at least as many new ones, which organizers said would be studied immediately with the heads of Vatican dicasteries, who also attended the summit.
All of this sounded pretty concrete to me. The victims’ groups, however, were generally scornful. They had come seeking “zero tolerance” and had found only fine-sounding words. What especially annoyed and disappointed many of them was Francis’s speech at the summit’s conclusion, which Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability.org, the Boston-based advocacy organization, called a “stunning letdown.”
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