Comment Opinion & Features

Why the Vatican’s abuse summit is doomed

Fr Lombardi (CNS)

People are expecting February's meeting to fail – and not without reason

A month away from the Vatican’s sexual abuse summit and the smell of failure is in the air, emanating not from the Holy Father’s critics but from his supporters.

And that was before an exclusive Associated Press report raised serious questions about the credibility of Pope Francis in relation to the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, his Argentine protégé who, after resigning from his Diocese of Oran, was given a senior Vatican post.

The key challenge for Vatican officials in the next few weeks will be to limit the damage the summit will do, now that the credibility of the Holy See itself has been so severely damaged.

The summit was announced early last autumn as way of taking pressure off Pope Francis in the aftermath of allegations made in the “testimony” by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. It worked in that regard, but in recent weeks the allies of Pope Francis have been busily trying to soften the blow that the Holy See will suffer from the summit’s failure.

Andrea Tornielli, new editorial director of Vatican communications, wrote that “there are excessive media expectations”. Fr Federico Lombardi, the former papal spokesman who will moderate the plenary sessions of the summit, wrote in La Civiltà Cattolica that the summit would not break new ground so much as drag along those countries which are lagging “behind”.

Fr Thomas Reese SJ, a senior analyst at the Religion News Service, simply declared flat-out that the summit will fail, and enumerated multiple reasons why.

The summit will fail because the Vatican’s position on the accountability of bishops is to rely on the judgment of the Pope himself, which was gravely weakened by Chile, further questioned by Viganò, and may be fatally compromised by Zanchetta.

The key issue for certain countries – Chile and America first among them – is accountability for bishops who have covered up cases. But Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he will judge the cases of bishops himself, preferring to set up his own ad hoc procedures rather than following even the tribunals put in place by his own legislation, Come una madre amorevole.

The summit will not deliver procedures for episcopal accountability because Pope Francis has decided it will not happen. That is not without reason: there are theological reasons why canon law reserves to the pope the investigation of bishops. Pope Francis may choose to make that stand on principle, but it is a difficult argument to make in current circumstances.

Those arguments became much more difficult after the AP story quoted Bishop Zanchetta’s former vicar general stating that the Holy See knew about “obscene” behaviour by Zanchetta in 2015 and 2017. According to AP, the Holy Father himself met Zanchetta to discuss the matter, so Pope Francis was presumably familiar with these details when he accepted Zanchetta’s resignation on supposed grounds of “ill health” and arranged for him to receive a plum Vatican job not even six months later.

The summit planners had wanted a different story to dominate the lead up to the summit. All reports out of Rome are that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is working overtime to laicise Theodore McCarrick quickly. The hope is that Pope Francis would gain a temporary bounce from banishing McCarrick; the same tactical strategy was employed with the dramatic resignation of all the Chilean bishops. But Zanchetta’s case is more troublesome for Pope Francis than McCarrick’s. The latter’s case reaches back decades and he was long retired before Pope Francis was elected. Zanchetta, though, is entirely the Holy Father’s creation from start to finish.

It should be noted that Zanchetta’s former vicar general, Juan José Manzano, was quick to say that the Holy Father was not to blame for creating a senior Vatican post for Zanchetta after accepting his resignation – a resignation that followed the allegations of “obscene” behaviour. Photographic evidence of same was provided to Roman officials. “There was never any intent to hide anything. There was never any intent of the Holy Father to defend [Zanchetta] against anything,” Manzano said.

No intent to hide: a rather regrettable formulation given that this was what Cardinal Donald Wuerl said when it was revealed that he did not tell the truth about when he knew of allegations against McCarrick. His previous false statements “were not intended to be imprecise”.

Both the McCarrick and Zanchetta cases include sexual misconduct with adults, particularly involving bishops abusing their position with seminarians. But the prominence of those cases draws attention to the fact that such matters are not on the agenda for the summit, which is limited to minors and “vulnerable” adults. The latter, in Church parlance, means of compromised physical or mental capacity.

A summit limited to the latter will be dealing with the issue as it was years ago. It was back in 2011 that the CDF mandated that all episcopal conferences develop comprehensive protocols to govern allegations of abuse of minors. Fr Lombardi acknowledged that has yet to be done in as many as a quarter of countries. A 2019 summit that emphasises the 2011 guidelines will not be adequate.

At this stage, “not adequate” might be the best that can be hoped for.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of