The summit could inspire local bishops to take a lead in tackling the crisis
The Vatican’s abuse summit this week will not solve the problems plaguing the Catholic Church in the U.S.
In fact, it doesn’t aim to.
The summit was called by Pope Francis in September, shortly after he was accused of ignoring reports about the predatory behavior of disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
But from the beginning, Pope Francis and meeting organizers have been disinclined to include in the summit’s schedule any discussion of the issues the Church in the U.S. faces.
Conference organizers, including Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, have insisted even this week that the summit will not discuss predatory homosexual behavior.
In a February 22 press conference, Archbishop Charles Scicluna went so far as to acknowledge a reporter’s point that homosexual behavior in seminaries fosters a culture of cover-up, before he said, curtly, that “this has nothing to do with the sexual abuse of minors.”
Scicluna said this despite McCarrick’s coercion of both vulnerable seminarians and teenaged boys, and despite the fact that most clerical abuse of minors in the West has targeted post-pubescent boys.
In fact, the first reported victim of McCarrick was 16 and 17 at the time he was abused.
Is it possible to focus discussion so myopically and insistently on child sexual abuse as to ignore the idea that sexually abusing a 17-year-old might have something to do with sexual immorality among adults?
Will Catholics accept the presupposition that those who sexually abuse 17-year-olds have an entire different moral or psychological pathology than those who sexually abuse 18-year-olds, or who coerce them into the veneer of consent against the backdrop of an extraordinary power imbalance?
Those ideas, many Catholics will conclude, simply belie credibility.
The summit will also not discuss in-depth the need for mechanisms of accountability for negligent or malfeasant bishops, despite the fact that McCarrick’s behavior went unchecked even after it was reported multiple times, and the fact that several U.S. bishops now face charges of negligence or misconduct.
While Cupich gave a presentation on some approaches to procedural investigations, he presented only the plan that would vest investigative responsibility for bishops only in their archbishops, though lay experts, including the National Review Board in the U.S., have supported alternative proposals.
His address did not mention the potential for metropolitans to incur significant legal liability through the so-called “metropolitan model,” though this is a point of considerable importance with regard to the Church in the U.S.
Critics of the summit charge that the pope called this meeting mostly as a diversion from the accusations of negligence he’s faced personally, stemming from his handling of accused prelates in the U.S., South America, and Europe. The pope still faces questions about his handling of the cases of Chile’s Bishop Juan Barros, McCarrick, Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, whom Francis promoted despite evidence of serious sexual malfeasance, among others.
But even if the narrow focus of this meeting is intended to change the topic of global conversation, this week’s abuse summit can still do some real good for children around the world. There is a serious need for safeguarding policies in most of the developing world, and introducing them in the Church may catalyze their more widespread adoption.
But by design, the Vatican summit won’t answer the issues embroiling local churches in the U.S. And Catholics are especially frustrated because when U.S. bishops attempted to vote on a reform package in November, they were stopped by the Vatican, and advised to wait until after this week’s meeting. Now some bishops wonder what, exactly, they were supposed to be waiting for.
Real reform in the dioceses of the U.S., it is becoming clear, will depend a great deal on local bishops making local changes in their local churches. Last month, the Archbishop of Baltimore announced a comprehensive whistleblower policy for his diocese, rather than wait for one to be introduced nationally. Other bishops can follow suit.
In response to the crisis, they can also develop more exacting local norms for screening seminary candidates, take up new approaches to leadership of their priests and lay employees, and they can commit to making themselves accountable to independent lay leaders.
The work of the Church continues in this country, even amid the crisis it faces. Catholic schools continue to educate millions of students, many of them poor. Catholic charities continue to serve the homeless, the undocumented, and the unseen. Catholic hospitals continue to treat the uninsured. And Catholic parishes continue striving to love the unloved- those whom Pope Francis says live on the “existential peripheries” of our society. The Church does all this in service to the Gospel it professes. But to continue to do so with credibility, the sexual abuse crisis must be addressed.
Neither the Vatican nor the national bishops’ conference has yet acted decisively to address the full scope of the crisis. And this week, the Vatican seems to have demonstrated key components of the crisis. But local bishops can, and without waiting for anyone else to act. Some have already begun that work, and the rest may soon be convinced to join them.