Pope’s team may need to explain new reluctance on ‘zero tolerance’


April 2, 2019

By John L. Allen Jr.

Tuesday made official a transition that’s been quietly underway for a while in terms of the Vatican’s response to the clerical sexual abuse scandals: Pope Francis and his aides are rethinking, if not the substance of a “zero tolerance” policy, at least the rhetoric of it, becoming increasingly unwilling to use that phrase.

Confirmation came with release of a document from the pontiff drawing conclusions from last fall’s Synod of Bishops on young people, where tensions over “zero tolerance” formed one of the major pieces of drama. In the end, Francis’s 35,000-word, 63-page text discusses the abuse crisis at some length, devoting almost 1,000 words to the subject, but makes no mention of “zero tolerance.”

Here’s the thing: There may be compelling reasons for caution about the phrase, beginning with the point that it seems to have come to mean wildly different things depending on who’s using it.

However, if the pope is now planning to avoid a term he himself helped to cement as a pillar of the Church’s commitment to reform, somebody will need to explain why – otherwise, people may be tempted to think this reconsideration is actually a retreat.

When Francis convened a synod on young people last October, questions surrounded how the bishops would handle an avalanche of fresh twists in the clerical abuse scandals.

Those developments included a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report; the resignation of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; a controversy in Australia over eroding the seal of the confessional; laicizations, bishops’ resignations and fresh revelations in Chile; and an infamous letter from Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accusing Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick and covering it up.

Two weeks before the synod opened, the Vatican announced Francis would summon presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world to Rome to discuss child protection Feb. 21-24. Nonetheless, several bishops at the synod representing areas hardest hit by the crisis pushed ahead, tackling it head-on.

One such moment came when Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia directly addressed the 36 young people who joined the bishops, apologizing for the failures of Church leadership. He drew sustained applause, and he was joined by several other prelates who engaged the issue both in floor speeches and in small group discussions. It seemed there was momentum towards a strong statement.

On Tuesday, Oct. 23, synod participants were presented with a draft version of the final document they would vote on Saturday, Oct. 27. It included a clear affirmation of “zero tolerance.”

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