As the abuse summit closes, what has changed?

(CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella)

Three days after Pope Francis called for 'concrete, effective measures' are we anywhere nearer solving the crisis?

(ROME — 24 February 2019) The Vatican’s four-day “summit” on child protection ended on Sunday, with little to show. The three days of the meeting’s working sessions began with a call from Pope Francis for “concrete, effective measures” to combat the clerical sexual abuse of minors, and ended with what essentially came to more promises.

Following Sunday Mass in the Sala Regia, which had Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane as the homilist and saw Pope Francis delivered a closing address that was not universally well-received, the Vatican announced three measures:

  • An Apostolic Letter motu proprio on the protection of minors and vulnerable adults — which will accompany a new law for Vatican City and guidelines for the Vicariate of Vatican City (the ecclesiastical district responsible for the administration of the part of the Rome diocese that is inside Vatican City);
  • A vademecum for bishops;
  • A “task force” to assist bishops in combatting abuse.

The meeting’s moderator, Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, announced the new steps at the final press briefing that followed the meeting’s close on Sunday. Fr Lombardi did not say exactly when the new measures would come, but said the motu proprio, law, and guidelines are “mature” and awaiting final preparation for publication.

The adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the leading expert on the legal side of child protection in the Catholic Church, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, did offer news regarding one specific legal change that could be in the offing: modifying the canonical definition of “child pornography” to include any material involving anyone under the age of eighteen.

At present, the pertinent law makes “the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology” a very grave canonical crime (delictum gravius).

In his final address on Sunday, Pope Francis said, “We now consider that this age limit should be raised in order to expand the protection of minors and to bring out the gravity of these deeds.”

Regarding the handbook — which Fr Lombardi described as a “very brief” guidebook prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and intended “to help the world’s bishops understand clearly their duties and their practical responsibilities [compiti, literally “tasks”] — Fr Lombardi said he expected it to be ready, “within a few weeks, maybe a month or two.”

If readers are surprised to learn that bishops should require such basic instruction — their mission, after all, is to govern the ecclesiastical jurisdictions in their charge — let them remember that the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the leading expert on the legal side of child protection in the Catholic Church, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, told journalists at a briefing on Monday of this week, “[I]n recent months, the Congregation for Bishops, when they ask other bishops to comment on candidates for the mission of bishop, always include an explicit question on how the candidate has dealt with sexual abuse issues — whether [the candidate] has been criticised for not doing the right thing — that is also an important aspect, now, of discernment, before a person is presented to [the] mission of bishop.”

Pope Francis has approved plans to prepare the programme for the task forces, which are to include experts in various fields to help dioceses and episcopal conferences in difficulty for a lack of resources.

Fr Lombardi also issued a statement through the Press Office of the Holy See on Sunday, describing the promised measures as, “encouraging signs that will accompany us in our mission of preaching the Gospel and of serving all children throughout the world, in mutual solidarity with all people of goodwill who want to abolish every form of violence and abuse against minors.”

Also at the Sunday briefing, Archbishop Scicluna said, “At the end of the day, it’s the change of heart that is important.”

Organizers and curial heads will meet to discuss the conference tomorrow. Organizers were to meet Sunday afternoon to discuss the Monday meeting.