The bishops have to realise they are part of the problem

Cardinal Cupich (Getty Images)

A lot is riding on the Vatican's February safeguarding meeting. The signs aren't good

The decision to appoint Cardinal Blase Cupich to the organising committee for the Vatican’s February child protection meeting has already caused a good bit of a stir. He is, after all, the man who proclaimed, “The Pope has a bigger agenda,” and can’t get “caught in the weeds” investigating whether there was a thirty-year coverup of the behaviour of disgraced former Archbishop Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, involving at least three popes, three secretaries of state, and dozens of other senior churchmen. (He later apologised for these comments).

Cardinal Cupich is also the focus of intense scrutiny in the wake of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fall Meeting in Baltimore, at which the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States planned to adopt reforms designed to establish for themselves a measure of transparency and accountability that included independent review and lay oversight.

The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley OFM Cap, is conspicuously absent from the organising committee, though he released a statement Friday in which he explained that his Commission conceived the idea of the meeting, elaborated it with the C9 Council of Cardinal-Advisers, and presented it to the Holy Father, who “accepted” their proposal.

“The role of the Pontifical Commission is to serve as an advisory body to the Holy Father, making recommendations on best practices for the universal Church for education and prevention programs regarding the crime of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults,” wrote Cardinal O’Malley in his statement Friday. “At the request of the Holy Father the Commission will assist and serve as a resource for the organizing committee,” he went on to say. “I am pleased that this meeting has been convoked by the Holy Father,” Cardinal O’Malley also said, “and I look forward to participating.”

Cardinal O’Malley was not the only member of the Commission who commented on the developments announced yesterday.

Fr. Hans Zöllner SJ is the head of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the Commission. He has been named the committee’s “contact person”, and gave his first interview to official Vatican media. “We suffer together,” Fr. Zöllner said, “and together, with the Lord’s help, we must find the cure.” Not to put too fine a point on it: holing up in the Vatican for three days with the heads of the world’s bishops’ clubs is not the most obvious way to address a crisis that is at its root one of episcopal culture.

The almost exclusive focus on child sexual abuse — horrendous as it is, indeed beyond execration — does not inspire confidence in either the Pope’s or the bishops’ ability to get their heads around the issue: the bishops are the problem.

Nor is it reasonable to ask patience of the worldwide body of the faithful. “Both abuse and its cover-up can no longer be tolerated,” wrote Pope Francis in his Letter to the People of God this past August, “and a different treatment for Bishops who have committed or covered up abuse, in fact represents a form of clericalism that is no longer acceptable.” That is a fine sentiment, one supposes, though one does wonder when abuse and cover-up, or special treatment for bishops ever should have been acceptable. Fr Zöllner quoted it, verbatim, in his interview with Vatican media.

The faithful of Adelaide may take a different view. Their archbishop, Philip Wilson, was not forced to resign, but after his conviction on charges he failed to report child abuse, “decided, however, that his conviction means he can no longer continue as Archbishop because to do so would continue to cause pain and distress to many[.]”

Likewise, it seems the faithful of Santiago de Chile are stuck with Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati — who denies accusations of cover-up from men the Vatican’s own criminal court has found credible, and is under the lens of Chilean prosecutors — at least until Pope Francis can find a suitable replacement. It ought to be a low bar.

The faithful of Buffalo, NY, meanwhile, continue with the pastoral care of Bishop Richard Malone, and will indefinitely, even though he is accused of being serially negligent, and in one case reportedly failed to rein in a previously censured priest because the cleric was not technically in violation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Malone even allegedly told the Apostleship of the Sea he was unaware of “anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children,” years after first learning of his behaviour. (Malone forcefully protests his innocence).

There’s a lot riding on the February meeting: we’re far beyond the question of Francis’s pontificate. We may even be beyond the question of the moral voice of the Church in the world — which could be lost for a generation or more, at a time when it is sorely needed. At stake in this is not even the credibility of the bishops as witnesses of the Gospel. What is at issue is whether the hierarchical leadership of the Catholic Church is serious about purging its own ranks of abusers and fixing its culture, which fosters abuse.