• Sara Larson

Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 1

(For some background on the summit, see my first post Prepare to Be Disappointed: Thoughts about the Vatican Abuse Summit. My observations about Day 2 begin here.)

The Vatican summit on the protection of minors got underway today, and I have been watching and reading along so that I can give you my take on what is happening in Rome.

There is a LOT of content to digest - transcripts and videos of the presentations, documents released to the media, a daily press conference, and more. I am learning a lot, and there are many things I need to give further reflection to before writing about. For now, I’d like to just give you a brief summary of the day and a few of my preliminary observations.

First, here’s the official schedule of what happened today, with links to where you can read and view the content online in English. If you have the time and interest, it’s definitely worth checking out some of these resources firsthand, rather than just reading reports of what other people found interesting or important. I would particularly recommend watching or reading Cardinal Tagle’s reflection, reading the text of the survivor testimonies, and/or watching the press conference. (Unfortunately, the question and answer periods and workings groups don’t appear to be recorded; I imagine some of the most interesting conversation happens during those times!)

Thursday, February 21; Theme: Responsibility

9:00 Opening prayer (Video)

Introduction by Pope Francis (Video begins around minute 12:25, Text)

Video testimonials from survivors (Text)

9.30 First Presentation, by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila

Title: Smell of the sheep - Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd's task

(Video at 36:05, Text)

10.00 Questions 10.15 Second Presentation, by Monsignor Charles Jude Scicluna, Archbishop of Malta

Title: Taking Responsibility for Processing Cases of Sexual Abuse Crisis and for Prevention of


(Video at 1:30, Text)

10.45 Questions 11.00 Coffee Break 11.20 Working Groups 12.30 Conclusion 16.00 Third Presentation, by Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez, Archbishop of Bogotá

Title: The Church in a Moment of Crisis - Facing Conflicts and Tensions and Acting Decisively

(Video at 3:20, Text) 16.30 Questions 16.45 Coffee Break 17.05 Working Groups 18.00 Presentation of Group Work 18.55 Final Remarks 19.05 Prayer, with Abuse Survivor Testimony 19:20 Conclusion

A few comments and observations from this first day:

- The day began with prayer. I’m not sure who chose the Scripture reading, but man, did they nail it. Participants heard these words from the book of Sirach, chapter 4 - “From the needy do not turn your eyes; do not give them reason to curse you. If in their pain they cry out bitterly, their Rock will hear the sound of their cry.” Quite a poignant exhortation, especially when read in the soft but clear voice of a tiny, white-clad religious sister. (Also, side note for those who occasionally slip into mass a few minutes late - apparently even bishops sometimes have to sneak in during an opening prayer!)

- Pope Francis’s introductory remarks were brief and not particularly notable, except this one line that stood out to me: “The holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete.” This word “concrete” came up several other times throughout the day. I don’t know whether this means that practical action steps really will be agreed upon at this meeting, but at least organizers seem to recognize that we, the Church, are looking for real action, not just empty words.

- At the beginning of the day, participants were given a document containing 21 “reflection points” that briefly summarize concrete steps that can be taken at a local level to address clergy sexual abuse. You can view those points here. Pope Francis said that these ideas were compiled from the suggestions of various episcopal conferences and that they are meant to be a starting point for dialogue. At the press briefing later in the day, Archbishop Scicluna hesitated to call them “orders” from the Holy Father, but these points definitely seemed to be designed to offer basic guidelines for bishops to set policy on the local level. Most of these steps (such as codes of conduct for church personnel, background checks, reporting mechanisms, and psychological screening for seminarians) are already established policy in the United States but would be new procedures in other parts of the world.

- One point on this list that seemed to take many by surprise was the suggestion to raise the universal minimum age for marriage under canon law to 16 years old. (Apparently right now the minimum age is 16 for boys and 14 for girls.) There seemed to be some confusion among American and European prelates and journalists about the reason this point was included in a statement about clerical abuse. However, during the press briefing, Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia commented that an African bishop told him that in his country, once a girl was of “marriageable age,” sexual contact was no longer considered abuse. It may be that this particular suggestion came from bishops of Africa, who thought changing the canonical age for marriage would better protect 14 and 15 year old girls from abuse.

- Prerecorded video testimonies were given by five abuse victims from around the world. Honoring the request of these victims, their identities were not revealed to the public and only a written text was made available to the press. It seems that these stories were meant to make a strong impression on the participants and to give an appropriate gravitas to the following conversations. In the press briefing, summit organizer Father Hans Zollner emphasized how important it was to have survivors from different countries and cultures speak, so that all participants would be clear that clergy sexual abuse is a universal problem. This issue came up, in subtle ways, throughout the day; it seems that the meeting organizers are aware that bishops from some areas of the world are not convinced of the seriousness or universality of the problem. Organizers clearly hope that this meeting will change their minds. (The worldwide, multicultural nature of the Catholic Church does make any unified effort more complex. I hope to write more on this challenge in a future post.)

- Cardinal Tagle’s reflection on a bishop’s responsibility to heal wounds set a much-needed pastoral tone for the meeting. He was certainly the most dynamic and emotive speaker of the day, even tearing up at a few points during his talk. I appreciate that Tagle began with these strong and challenging words for bishops: “The abuse of minors by ordained ministers has inflicted wounds not only on the victims, but also on their families, the clergy, the Church, the wider society, the perpetrators themselves and the Bishops. But, it is also true, we humbly and sorrowfully admit, that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims and in fact the entire body of Christ. Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution has injured our people, leaving a deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve.” Many people, myself included, wish that this summit would be giving more attention to the issues of secrecy and cover up, so I am glad that Cardinal Tagle addressed this directly.

- I am increasingly impressed by Archbishop Scicluna. I already knew he had a reputation as a strong and effective agent for reform in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse (he was the one Pope Francis sent to investigate the situation in Chile - with powerful results). Learning more about Scicluna’s work and seeing him in action at two press conferences, I feel really encouraged that he has been given so much responsibility by Pope Francis. At a time when I’m feeling pretty distrustful of many church leaders, I am realizing that I actually trust this man. That feels good. (Scicluna’s presentation at the meeting today was very important, detailed, and practical - but also pretty boring. I hope that bishops really take time to digest his many concrete recommendations and bring them back to their countries.)

- The mid-day press conference was fascinating. I took about four pages of notes, and there’s a lot I need to process. One thing I took note of: Father Zollner spoke several times about the need for a heartfelt commitment on the part of each individual bishop. Both he and Scicluna seemed very aware that the Church needs policies and procedures in place, but that these rules will not be nearly as effective if those in authority aren’t sufficiently motivated to implement them. My impression is that some of the church leaders who care deeply about this issue (Zollner and Scicluna, for example) are really hoping that this summit can bring about a change of heart in some of those who are resisting change or implementing policies only halfheartedly. It remains to be seen whether this meeting will have that hoped-for effect.

- Cardinal Gomez’s powerful talk began with a strong condemnation of clericalism and a few attempts to clarify the meaning of this much-used buzzword. He defined clericalism as “the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest,” and he told his fellow bishops that “we are hardly ever aware that it underlies our way of conceiving ministry and acting at decisive moments.” I was most struck by the portion of his talk where he offered several challenges to bishops, including this one: “We have to recognize this crisis in its full depth: to realize that the damage is not done by outsiders but that the first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within.” After this, Gomez went through a list of unhelpful episcopal responses (minimizing the problem by pointing out abuse in other institutions, treating the media like an enemy, etc.) that coincide with many of my own observations. His talk left me thinking that at least some bishops really do “get it” - and that they are desperately trying to get through to their brother bishops who are resisting real reform.

There is a lot more I could say, but it’s late and there’s a whole new slate of talks coming up in the morning. So, I think I will sign off for now.

It was an interesting day, and I look forward to seeing what unfolds tomorrow.


After observing the first day of this meeting,

I would suggest that we pray specifically for those bishops who are resistant to change:

Holy Spirit, soften the hearts of these bishops,

that they may truly hear the cries of those who are wounded and become open to real change.

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