February is still a good way off, but it is not as far off as it might seem. Presumably, the Vatican is already busily preparing for the meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences, scheduled for February 21-24. There’s a lot riding on the meeting. To say that public perception of the Pope’s handling of the burgeoning global crisis is not good would put one in the running for understatement of the year.
From Chile – where the latest chapter exploded in January – to Germany, the Netherlands, several countries in Africa (where women religious especially are reported to have been subjected to horrendous abuse), and India (where one bishop has been arrested on rape charges and another has had his diocese essentially placed in ecclesiastical receivership over shady real estate deals) – not to mention Ireland and the United States – Pope Francis has demonstrated a range of attitudes running from reluctance to near-total paralysis.
The February gathering could therefore represent the Pope’s last chance to convince people he is serious about addressing the crisis.
There is, however, good reason to believe the meeting is doomed from the start.
That bodes ill not only or even primarily for the Vatican’s PR cache, but for the whole Church, which cannot afford to be without effective leadership.
Pope Francis’s troubled C9 “kitchen cabinet” of Cardinal Advisers announced the meeting on September 12, saying the theme of it would be “protection of minors”. A summary specified that the meeting would also concern itself with the safeguarding of “vulnerable adults”.
Though the Vatican has not clarified what “vulnerable adults” means, it is generally understood to refer to persons who struggle with self-sufficiency because of physical or intellectual handicaps. So, not seminarians, for example, though their vulnerability to evil superiors has been amply attested over the past several months.
The problem is twofold: the bishops have not been merely ineffective in addressing the abuse crisis, they have been complicit in sexual abuse and coverup; although abuse and coverup are the swollen and festering boil on the Church’s body, the crisis facing the Church is one of episcopal leadership generally: the bishops’ protracted failure to police the moral culture of the clergy, high and low.
Keeping minors and vulnerable adults beyond the reach of lascivious men of the cloth is certainly necessary, but even the most fool-proof and iron-clad system of defence could never be a real solution. To fix the problem at its core, to root it out really, there must be a thorough reform of clerical culture and of power structures within the Church.
If the old Jesuit maxim – repetita iuvant – is to be credited, the thing bears repeating: this crisis is global, protracted, and persistent. The genesis and trajectory of this meeting suggest Pope Francis still does not get it. In any case, relying on the heads of the bishops’ conferences to put their heads together and find solutions on their own must be a long shot: the bishops – and Francis is one of them – are the problem.
It could be that Francis believes he needs to soften up the Church’s hierarchical leadership and ease them into the idea that they must relinquish – or at least loosen – their titanic grip on the reins of power. If so, it’s an awfully long play.