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What a successful abuse summit would look like


February's meeting has to do five things if it has any hope of making a difference

We are almost a decade into the global fight against clerical abuse and we have little to show for it. In 2011, the Vatican asked the world’s bishops’ conferences to draw up safeguarding guidelines and submit them for approval by mid-2012. Today, nearly seven years after that deadline passed, only half of bishops’ conferences worldwide have adopted robust, Vatican-approved norms. Of the other half, a quarter have submitted guidelines to Rome, received feedback and are making revisions. This means that a quarter of conferences have failed to adopt even the most basic measures to combat abuse.

That does not augur well for next month’s global safeguarding summit in Rome. In an unprecedented step, the Pope has summoned presidents of bishops’ conferences (as well as leaders of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches and heads of religious orders) to discuss the crisis. There is already a broad consensus in the Catholic media that the meeting will prove a failure.

At, Fr Thomas Reese SJ set out five reasons why the gathering will prove inadequate. First, the meeting lasts just four days (February 21-24). Second, expectations in some quarters are impossibly high. Third, the participants come from such diverse cultures that it will be hard to achieve consensus. Fourth, the Vatican does not seem properly prepared for the meeting. And fifth, in order to succeed, Pope Francis would have to impose strict new procedures on the bishops, but his “belief that the pope should not act like an absolute monarch” prevents him from doing so.

With the summit just weeks away, the Vatican’s recently revamped communications department is working furiously to lower expectations. More journalists are expected to descend on Rome next month than for any event since the last conclave. If they conclude that the gathering is a failure, it will be another serious blow to the Church’s credibility.

But what would a successful summit look like? Let’s try and imagine it for a moment.

The meeting would begin with testimony from abuse survivors around the world. This would be a stark reminder to participants that listening to victims – rather than worrying about the Church’s reputation or finances – is the first priority.

The Pope would demand that all the world’s bishops’ conferences introduce Vatican-approved safeguarding guidelines by the end of 2019. It is often argued that Rome cannot impose universal norms as some Catholics live under hostile regimes that would exploit reports of abuse. But it is surely possible to create and enforce the most fundamental rules to protect children even under these very difficult conditions.

Summit participants would make it clear that all sexual abuse or harassment of adults within the Church should be taken seriously. This might seem obvious, but it is actually controversial in some circles. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) currently has the authority to investigate the abuse of minors and “vulnerable adults”. But a “vulnerable adult” is defined narrowly as a person who “habitually lacks the use of reason”. Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston has suggested that the definition should be broadened to include abuses of power – for example, if seminarians are sexually harassed by their bishop.

The gathering would insist that qualified lay people play a significant role in reviewing allegations against bishops. The Vatican seems keen on the so-called “metropolitan model”, in which auxiliary bishops are investigated by their metropolitan archbishops (and vice-versa). This system appears to give lay people only a token role, which is unlikely to restore trust in Church authorities.

Finally, the meeting would insist that the CDF be adequately staffed. The congregation is working through a huge backlog of cases because it is severely understaffed. This is scandalous, but can be easily rectified. The Vatican should double or triple the number of officials tackling abuse cases as a matter of urgency.

If next month’s gathering takes these five steps, it would not eradicate the scourge of abuse. Nor would it end the crisis, which seems likely to continue for years. It might not even win plaudits among the media. But it would salvage a summit that many observers have already written off as a missed opportunity.