Pope Francis speaks at the conclusion of a Mass on the final day of a meeting on the protection of minors in the church (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.”


Whether one calls it clericalism, institutional idolatry, or corruption, the mindset that has governed too many bishops for too long makes them deaf to victims and protective of perpetrators.

In the speech, Francis laid down eight principles—culled from World Health Authority documents, and his own anti-abuse experts—to guide the church’s efforts to combat a worldwide evil that has struck at the heart of Catholicism’s credibility.

Francis presented a broad picture of the abuse of minors, a form of cruelty as old as humanity yet revealed as never before in our own time. Acts of sexual violence against children in homes, neighborhoods, schools, and various other institutions have created millions of silent victims, while the spread of internet pornography and the rise of sexual tourism has led to numbing levels of suffering. (In 2017 alone, the pope said, three million people traveled to have sexual relations with a minor.) Francis was implicitly addressing church leaders from Africa who had complained at the start of the summit that clerical sex abuse wasn’t their issue, and that what they had to tackle were other forms of child exploitation. Francis insisted that clerical sex abuse represents the same demonic abuse of power that lurks behind “other forms of abuse affecting almost 85,000,000 children, forgotten by everyone.” These include “child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children, children kidnapped and often victimized by the horrid commerce of human organs or enslaved, child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children and so many others.”

In other words, these are all dimensions of the same evil that the church everywhere has to confront as part of its core mission. You cannot care about child soldiers without caring about the sexual abuse of children, starting with the abuse committed by priests. Yet rather than seeing the pope’s references as a way of dismantling the African church’s denial mechanism, victims’ groups see it as a PR exercise designed to diminish the church’s responsibility. Barret Doyle believes Francis was “rationalizing”—minimizing the church’s crimes by pointing out that abuse happens in all sectors of society.

In reality, there was nothing the bishops and the pope could have said that would have satisfied the victims’ groups. Their response to the issue is one that Francis has explicitly rejected: one-size-fits-all retribution. As Archbishop Scicluna pointed out, when the church administers sanctions or penalties, it is for the reform of the sinner and reparation of scandal, not simply punishment.

That doesn’t mean it is lenient. In a post-summit article that seeks to capture the clash of viewpoints, Rachel Donadio describes canon law as taking “a more pastoral approach, one that leans toward forgiveness.” Yet when it comes to the abuse of minors, church law offers no second chances: abuser priests will no longer be able to act as priests, and bishops who cover up for them will be removed. The point is that canon law takes a “common-good” approach, not a punitive one. “Removing from exercise of ministry should not be seen as a punishment but rather as the duty to protect the flock,” Archbishop Scicluna told journalists.

But if your view of laws is essentially retributive, canon law does look lax. This in turn feeds the suspicion of victims’ organizations and some right-wing Catholics, who believe that if only the church were fiercer, or more punitive—if only it were less “merciful” and more draconian—this issue could be resolved very quickly.

The summit organizers didn’t believe this. They say that laws and regulations, though necessary, are incapable of attacking the issue at its roots. They say this is a problem that can be solved only by conversion, not coercion. Whether one calls it clericalism, institutional idolatry, or corruption, the mindset that has governed too many bishops for too long makes them deaf to victims and protective of perpetrators. The pope calls it the spirit of evil, which cannot be defeated by practical means alone, but by spiritual means of “humiliation, self-accusation, prayer, and penance.” Hence the penitential liturgy on Saturday, when a Chilean victim spoke slowly and piercingly of the effect of abuse of him—“there is no dream without the memory of what happened. No day without memories, no day without flashbacks.” Hence, too, the examination of conscience, the collective confession, and an appeal for “the grace to overcome injustice and to practice justice for the people entrusted to our care.”

“The pope is a supreme monarch: Can’t he just order everyone to do this?” asked an exasperated BBC interviewer when I tried to explain why the pope had brought together church leaders for a four-day summit. The Archbishop of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Hollerich, gave to La Croix the answer I should have given. Le pape est très sage, he said. “He knows very well that you can’t change the church by just giving orders from above. You have to change people’s hearts.” Hollerich, moderator of the French-speaking group, said he could see this happening in his group: “there is a development in their consciences, in the bishops’ thinking in the course of these few days,” he said. “The bishops are changing.”

The primary purpose of the summit was never to devise severe new legislation, for which a global meeting of church leaders would hardly be necessary. The purpose was what the pope called “personal and collective conversion, the humility of learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable.” On the way to that conversion, there were two forms of resistance to God’s grace identified by the pope: defensiveness (the kind of attitude that says, “this isn’t our issue”) and juridicism (believing you can change everything by laws and regulations alone).

Of course, if you do not believe in the power of grace to transform consciousness, this will all sound like evasive palaver. If you believe bishops are essentially corrupt and self-serving and will only act against abuser priests when they see each other locked up in jail, you will hardly see the point of the pope’s analysis.

So we’re left with a kind of paradox. Real change can happen only through the involvement of survivors, whose testimonies are key to the church’s conversion on this issue. Yet too often survivors’ organizations do not recognize conversion as amounting to any kind of solution. Their anger is fully justified—and it has sometimes forced the issue when bishops would have preferred to see it remain buried—but it has left many of them blind to the significance of what just happened at the Vatican.

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 March 22, 2019 issue: View Contents
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