News Analysis

Things went from bad to worse at the Rome abuse summit


Now that the four-day meeting on child protection in the Church is over and done, the question is: what next? For an answer to that, you’ll need a soothsayer, not a journalist. The most anyone can do is see where we are and where we’ve been, in order to see where we might be going. The short version is: We’ve come from a bad place, and got to a worse one. The four-day summit that opened with deflated expectations largely failed to meet even those.

The widely quoted promises from Pope Francis, of “all-out battle” against the clerical sexual abuse of minors – and of its cover-up by bishops and other Church leaders – were not backed by any clear policy, nor even the promise of one. In fact, it was almost as if the men in charge do not understand what policy is.

The eight points Pope Francis outlined in his closing address included such items as “the protection of children” and “impeccable seriousness”, before listing: “Genuine purification; Formation; Strengthening and reviewing guidelines by episcopal conferences; Accompaniment of those who have been abused; The digital world; and Sexual tourism.”

The test for whether words amount to policy is: could anyone reasonably be against the statement? Every item on that list – which was closely adapted from a “best practices” guidebook the World Health Organisation prepared in concert with the US Centers for Disease Control and several other UN offices – is the equivalent of a politician announcing he is in favour of more jobs and better pay.

The only possible exceptions are the last two: the digital world and sexual tourism. These are areas of endeavour, fields of conflict, battlegrounds. They are areas in which the Church might lead, but before she can, she must – as Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said in one of the briefings – “put her own house in order”.

How disordered is the Church’s house in these regards? In his closing address, Pope Francis announced he considers it is high time to change the definition of child pornography in canon law, so it will be a crime to look at all child pornography, instead of just images involving very young children. “[M]ention should be made of the new
norms on graviora delicta approved by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, which included as a new species of crime ‘the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors … by whatever means or using whatever technology’,” he said.

“The text speaks of minors ‘under the age of 14’,” Francis went on to say. “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.”

When it comes to child pornography, one thinks of the case of the disgraced former Bishop of Antigonish, Raymond Lahey, who pled guilty in 2011 in Canadian criminal court of importing indecent images of children on his computer. Canadian border patrol agents had inspected him after seeing that he had recently visited Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia – places known for their links with sex tourism. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dismissed Lahey from the clerical state in May 2012, a few months after a Canadian judge sentenced him to time served.

Before the Church gets serious about fighting child pornography in the digital age and sexual tourism in the age of easy global travel, it still needs to make it a grave crime for clerics to look at the former. The Church could also investigate bishops who make frequent “fact-finding missions” to known sex tourism destinations.

Heading into the four-day meeting, Pope Francis told us many bishops didn’t know what to do when confronted with an abuse case. He proposed – and on the meeting’s final day promised the bishops of the world would soon receive – a handbook detailing their “duties and responsibilities” in those and related regards.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna – the leading expert on the legal side of child protection in the Church and one of the meeting’s principal organisers – reminded us at least once during the daily briefings, that the CDF had asked the world’s bishops’ conferences to submit guidelines as recently as 2011, and that all but a half-dozen conferences had done so. The ones that hadn’t complied were in war zones.

If they had reviewed their protocols in 2011 and submitted them to the Vatican for revision and approval, how are we to take seriously the idea that they don’t know what to do? Before that, and quite apart from questions of procedure: what sort of man is it who does not understand how awful a crime the sexual abuse of minors is?

Given the history of the Church, it is not wholly surprising to find that some bishops are evil men. But that is all the more reason for the Vatican to take decisive action against the moral blindness pervading Church leadership.