Vatican Summit Promises Course Change on Sexual Abuse, Concrete Actions Pending

National Catholic Register

February 27, 2019

By Edward Pentin

Three concrete initiatives to better handle clerical sex abuse, greater powers to help the laity hold bishops accountable, and changes to a papal decree aimed at closing legal loopholes that have allowed bishops to cover up such crimes with impunity, were some tangible achievements of the recent Vatican summit on child protection in the Church.

The 114 episcopal conference presidents taking part in the Feb. 21-24 gathering mostly welcomed the meeting’s outcome and the rare opportunity to discuss face-to-face these issues from a global perspective.

The meeting was “very useful, very necessary and very timely,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India, told reporters at the end of the conference. He welcomed bringing the “whole world together” to address the abuse problem, which is now a “common priority.” All are now conscious “this is a real serious problem,” he added.

“These have been challenging, fruitful days,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a Feb. 25 statement. “We owe survivors an unyielding vigilance that we may never fail them again.”

But many others were disappointed, angry or frustrated with the meeting’s outcome. Victim-survivor groups largely viewed the event as not radical enough and a deflection from effectively preventing abuse, achieving real accountability and ending a cover-up culture in the Church.

“My fears have been answered,” Shaun Dougherty, who was abused by a priest when he was 10 to 13 years old, told the Register. “I don’t believe that the bishops and cardinals are any more equipped to police themselves than they were last week, before the conference began.”

The meeting was also overshadowed by accusations that Pope Francis had himself been covering up for clerical abusers, including most recently Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, accused of inappropriate behavior with seminarians and having homosexual pornography on his cellphone.

Others saw discussion of ex-cardinal and priest Theodore McCarrick’s crimes of abuse of minors, seminarians and priests of a homosexual nature as deliberately omitted and suppressed. This was despite outrage over the McCarrick scandal providing much of the impetus for the summit. It was also seen as a lost opportunity in dealing with causes of abuse that encompass vulnerable adults as well as minors.

Pope Francis opened the meeting expressing hope that the participants would “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice” and that they discuss “this evil” in a “synodal, frank and in-depth manner.” He also issued 21 points to consider as “starting points” for discussions on improving the handling of abuse cases, at least half of which reflected the American experience since the crisis first broke in 2002.

The meeting’s program centered on nine presentations on a theme dedicated to each of the three days: responsibility on the first, accountability on the second, and transparency on the third, interspersed by working-group sessions and testimonies from abuse victims.

The presenters — five cardinals, one archbishop, a religious sister and two laywomen — covered a wide range of issues: the need for the Church to draw close to the wounds of victims, acknowledge faults and mistakes, and ask for forgiveness to regain credibility and ensure children are safe. They highlighted areas of prevention and clarified bishops’ responsibilities and the need for collegiality and synodality in dealing with abuse.

Also proposed was a 12-point proposal for better accountability, including having metropolitan bishops hold other bishops accountable. Other suggestions were revising and possibly rescinding use of the “pontifical secret” in abuse cases and inviting Church leaders to see the media as allies rather than enemies in uncovering abuse and bringing predator priests to justice.

At a penitential liturgy on the final evening of the summit discussions, bishops made an examination of conscience, confessed to covering up abuse, and asked for pardon. In his homily at the summit’s closing Mass the next day, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, acknowledged that at times abuse victims have been seen “as the enemy” and that “we have not loved them; we have not blessed them.”

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