There are 10 countries in which the Catholic Church has no child protection policies whatsoever. That was the startling statistic that emerged last week as the Vatican marked the first anniversary of its historic summit aimed at fighting the scourge of abuse around the world.
In 2011, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) asked all bishops’ conferences to draw up policies for handling abuse allegations. These texts did not need to be as detailed as, say, the child protection policies of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In fact, they could consist of little more than a preamble and a few quotations from The Code of Canon Law.
Nevertheless, nine years on there are 10 jurisdictions that have produced no written policy at all. This is a pity, but there may be good reasons why they have failed to do so. As officials explained to reporters in Rome last Friday, the 10 countries (which they declined to name) suffer from war and extreme poverty. In such conditions even something as vital as child protection norms comes second to the sheer struggle for survival.
On the first anniversary of the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church, the Vatican was understandably keen to put a positive spin on its efforts to halt abuse. Perhaps it is indeed an achievement for the Church to have guidelines on combating abuse in all but 10 nations worldwide. But it seems that in many cases the policies are rudimentary and urgently in need of updating.
In its quest for good publicity, the Vatican also announced an eye-catching new initiative last week: a “task force” to help bishops’ conferences to either develop or update procedures for handling abuse cases. This body will consist of canon lawyers and other experts, and will be led by the Maltese professor Andrew Azzopardi, a protégé of Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who has done more to fight abuse than almost any other figure in the Church. The new group has a dedicated email address, [email protected], where bishops and religious superiors will be able to seek answers to their child protection questions.
We applaud the Vatican for taking this step. Many bishops’ conferences desperately need help in the battle against abuse. Azzopardi’s team should be of some assistance to them. It is good news as well that the CDF is preparing to release a handbook helping bishops and heads of religious orders to understand how they are supposed to handle abuse allegations.
We also note the other major steps that the Vatican has taken since the child protection summit in February 2019. Last May, Pope Francis issued Vos estis, which seeks to ensure that Church leaders are held accountable for their handling of abuse cases. In December, the Pope lifted the pontifical secrecy rule in abuse cases. These are all excellent measures.
But, as always, there are some caveats. First, the new task force can only respond to requests for assistance. In other words, even though the body is under the protection of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the number three official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, it has no power to compel laggardly bishops’ conferences to produce adequate guidelines.
Second, the task force is being funded by donors to a dedicated fund rather than by the Vatican itself. The Holy See may be experiencing financial difficulties, but surely it should be prioritising child protection. The Church is, after all, unable to proclaim the Gospel effectively if it is seen to be indifferent to the welfare of its most vulnerable members.
Third, the task force will only have a two-year term. Given the slow progress so far, it’s unlikely that all the world’s bishops’ conferences will have effective, up-to-date guidelines by 2022.
Fourth, as the Vatican observer John Allen has pointed out, the idea of assisting bishops’ conferences with their guidelines is not new. Indeed, that was supposed to be one of the tasks of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, founded by Pope Francis in 2014. Over the past six years, the Pontifical Commission has been scandalously underfunded and marginalised. So, as Allen noted, it is unclear whether the new task force is “a response to a genuine lacuna in the system, or … just bureaucratic duplication that may not actually add value”.
In two years’ time we will know which of these descriptions is most apt. For now, we should welcome the new task force and pray for its success.