As the old adage goes, you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. Nor do you solve an abuse crisis simply by having summits to discuss it. It is therefore in part understandable if the Pope has sought to play down expectations of what the bishops gathering now in Rome might achieve. However, for someone who once memorably counselled pastors to smell of the sheep, the Pope risks appearing overly sanitised if he does not demonstrate that he shares the urgency of the People of God to change things.
The levels of frustration and demoralisation among priests and people grows daily as more revelations of abuse emerge. But the proximate cause of this summit was not the abuse of minors; it was the discovery that one of the highest-ranking churchmen had lived a double life for 50 years and that this was hidden in plain sight. Theodore McCarrick was himself no stranger to summits issuing charters promising to end abuse.
By blocking the US bishops from voting on any new measures to clean house back in November, the Vatican has assumed total responsibility for a crisis which will not be solved with another talkathon on the evils of abuse and more promises of transparency.
It is a positive move, I think, that the voices of survivors will figure more prominently in this summit. The Pope speaks of the need to educate bishops in their suffering. But again this is equivocal. It could equally be evidence of what desperate straits we are in if bishops still need to be brought up to speed on the fact that child abuse has devastating and far-reaching consequences. They are, after all, the anointed successors of those who were told that it is to such that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs and that anyone who scandalises a child should hang a millstone round his neck and be drowned. And the Church has had a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for almost five years now, from which both survivors of abuse resigned, frustrated by it’s inaction.
What might we reasonably expect from the summit? I think the first thing is that the crisis be addressed not simply in sociological terms. This is a spiritual crisis, not just a crisis of leadership requiring more regulations to promote good practice. The Church has not been a Mother; her leaders have not been fathers.
Some kind of whistleblowing mechanism, some kind of accountability for bishops which does not de facto appoint cronies or patrons as judge and jury, would be evidence of a real desire for transparency. In that regard, another reasonable expectation would be that those privy to McCarrick’s record at any stage be held to public account. The laicisation of “Uncle Ted” does not remotely close that particularly gruesome chapter. Given the gravity of Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s claims, the transparency we have been promised means they must be addressed, however unwelcome their implication or suspect their motivation. Unlike gossip, whistleblowing invites an examination of the facts by citing dates and documentary sources. If a former nuncio’s testimony can be dismissed as malicious gossip, why will survivors’ stories be heard?
The credibility of the Church’s entire mission is at stake. Is it an unrealistic hope that we might begin to speak of the victims of abuse as having the same priority and claim on our care and resources as migrants and the victims of human trafficking? They are, in fact, our own in-house victims, fleeing unacceptable standards of security, objectification and enslavement by her own representatives. They are truly on the peripheries of the Church. They need some concrete help.