• Sara Larson

Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 2 (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

(For more information, see my intro to the abuse summit here and quick takes from Day 1 here.)

Yesterday, I read approximately one million articles about what was happening at the child protection summit in Rome, along with taking my own notes on the presentations and press briefing. I gained valuable perspective by seeing how this event is being covered by various media outlets, but I also noticed that the stories from many different news sources often ended up focusing on the same few topics, referencing the same few quotes. I wondered what would happen if someone just read and watched everything in isolation, without any bias from other coverage of the event.

So, today, I’m trying something a little different: I am not tracking anything except the primary sources - the texts for the presentations and the video feed from the conference hall and briefing room. I’m genuinely curious to see if I pick up on the same themes and highlights as the journalists sitting in Rome, or if a fresh perspective raises up some different points. Let me know what you think, especially if you have been reading other articles about the events of today!

First, here’s the schedule for this morning, with links to enable you to read and view everything for yourself:

Friday, February 22; Theme: Accountability

9.00 Opening prayer (Video, Scripture Text: Romans 12:1-11)

9.15 First Presentation, by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai (Video beginning at 20:05, Text)

Title: Accountability in a Collegial and Synodal Church

9.45 Questions 10.00 Second Presentation, by Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago

(Video, Text) Title: Synodality: Jointly Responsible

10.30 Questions 10.45 Coffee break 11.05 Working Groups 12.30 Conclusion

Here are a few observations from the morning session:

Opening Prayer and Introductory Comments

- Once again, whoever chose the Scripture reading for the opening prayer seems to want to send a strong message to the participants. Today’s reading from Romans Chapter 2 included this powerful line: “By the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than one ought to think.” I hope these words from St. Paul made a few bishops squirm just a little. Next, Father Zollner read this quotation from an abuse victim, then asked for two minutes of silent reflection: “When Jesus was about to die, his mother was with him. When I was abused by a priest, my mother Church left me alone.” I hope that those bishops kept squirming during those long, quiet minutes. Today’s prayer also included singing “Veni, Creator Spiritus” - I pray that there truly is room for the Holy Spirit in these hearts.

- One of the glaringly obvious deficiencies of this summit is the lack of female voices in the room. Yes, there have been several women involved in the planning process. Yes, one of the speakers today is a female canon lawyer (notably, one of the first women appointed to a position in the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith). And yes, ten superiors general of women’s religious orders are participants in this meeting. Those are positive steps, but obviously, this falls far short of adequately including women’s voices. Also, every time the video camera pans the crowd, I can’t help but notice that those ten female participants are seated in the last row of the auditorium, behind rows and rows of men in zucchetti. When the camera is shooting from the back of the room, you are looking at Pope Francis over the heads of an elderly religious sister in a gray habit and an African woman in a brightly patterned head scarf. I wish I could talk to these women and hear their perspective on this meeting. I also wish they weren’t sitting in the back row.

- Before the first presentation began, Father Federico Lombardi, the moderator of the summit, highlighted materials produced by the United Nations on the issue of protecting children. Copies of the UN’s “Global Survey on Violence against Children” were made available to all participants, and Fr. Lombardi encouraged attendees to read and study this data. He also referenced his meeting with Marta Santos Pais, the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Violence against Children. Lombardi recounted a productive conversation and the promise of collaboration and mutual support. I was pleasantly surprised to hear a recognition of the wisdom of secular experts and a pledge of greater engagement with the issues of child protection in the wider global community.

First Presentation, by Cardinal Oswald Gracias: Accountability in a Collegial and Synodal Church

- While each speaker submitted a prepared text of their presentation, which is posted on the meeting’s website, Cardinal Gracias went “off script” a little bit to add some comments about a meeting with abuse survivors earlier this week. Because these remarks were particularly poignant but are not included in the posted text, I am transcribing them here. Gracias said: “Two days back we met with a group of victims. The meeting left a deep impression on me. I was numbed and could not speak. I could sense the anger, frustration, hurt, helpless, and bitterness that they felt. I share this with you as a background of our meeting these days. We met just twelve, but there would be tens of thousands more, who we have not met. How do we respond to them? How do we help them? This is our challenge.”

- Cardinal Gracias also added a few closing remarks that are not in the prepared text: “Above all, we need to have the humility to admit that we are not perfect. We do not have all the answers; we do not have all the wisdom. We listen to the Church, to our lay faithful as well, as they pray for us, advise us, and support us in our efforts to make the church what she is meant to be, the sacrament of Christ. I began with quoting from victims; I want to end with this as well. A moment of consolation was when I told one of the victims, 'Please don’t stop loving the Church.' The reply I got was consoling: 'I cannot. I will always do all I can for the Church. It is my family.'"

- Here’s my favorite mic drop moment from Cardinal Gracias: “This [process] includes the involvement of lay people, both men and women. In doing so, we should remain honest, and ask ourselves: do we really want this? What are we actually doing towards this? Are we only undertaking alibi measures for a synodal church, and in reality actually wish to remain among ourselves as bishops - in “our” conferences, in “our” commissions, in "our" meetings, in which non-bishops and non-clergy only play an insignificant role? Now is not the time and place to go into detail, but if we do not only speak of a synodal church but also want to live it, then we must also learn to practice other forms of management, and learn how we can conduct synodal processes. If we do not do all of this, then the talk of synodality in the context of the topic of abuse only serves to conceal inconsistent behavior, i.e. in the critical and difficult field of abuse, deflecting responsibility onto lay people (men and women), but otherwise denying them the opportunity to take responsibility.”

OK, you might need to read it again to get the challenge he’s laying out, but I think he’s asking his brother bishops a hard question: “Do we really want the full engagement of the laity? If so, we can’t just ask them to help us deal with the abuse crisis, then slam the door in their face when they want to be treated as true leaders of the Church.” Boom. Mic drop.

- Halfway through listening to Gracias’s talk, I wrote this in my notes: “They are saying all the right things.” So far, this has been my overwhelming observation of the presentations at this summit. While we in the United States have heard our bishops make statements that come across as defensive, insincere, and cold, the men being given the microphone in Rome are doing a really, really good job. They may not all be the most dynamic communicators, but the words they are speaking come across as careful and thoughtful and humble. They are diving into the complexities of these issues, consistently speaking about victims with compassion, calling for the contributions of the laity, thanking the media for their role in holding the Church accountable, taking personal responsibility for both the crisis and cover up, cautioning against the temptation to see this as a problem of the past, recognizing the deep wounds of faithful Catholics who feel betrayed by their leaders… In short, they are saying pretty much everything I want to hear from the leaders of the Church. As I listen, I find myself believing in these men, feeling hopeful about their leadership.

All that said, speaking the perfect words is not enough. This is what I hear survivors saying, over and over, including outside the doors of this very meeting hall: “We have heard so many words, so many nice-sounding promises over the years… But you keep on letting us down. You keep on breaking those promises. When the rubber hits the road, when it comes down to the details of individual cases, you have showed us that you don’t really mean those nice-sounding words. We have heard enough talk. Now is the time for action.” I know there is wisdom in this perspective as well. So, I will keep on listening to and learning from the words of the summit presentations, but I will also be watching to see if those words are truly put into practice when these bishops return home.

Second Presentation, by Cardinal Blase Cupich: Synodality - Jointly Responsible

- Early in his talk, Cardinal Cupich addressed head-on the lack of trust that so many Catholics now have in their institutional leadership: “They are asking themselves, ‘If church leaders could act with so little care in giving pastoral attention in such obvious cases of a child being sexually molested, does that not reveal how detached they are from us as parents who treasure our children as the light of our lives? Can we really expect our leaders to care about us and our children in the ordinary circumstances of life, if they responded so callously in cases that would alarm any reasonable person?’ This is the source of the growing mistrust in our leadership, not to mention the outrage of our people.” I appreciate the use of the word “outrage” - Yes, dear bishops, we, the Church, are outraged.

- After highlighting the many failings of Church leaders, Cardinal Cupich offered a lovely image of the Church that we all dream of - the Church that abuse victims deserve: “The Church must truly be Pietà, broken in suffering, consoling in enveloping love, constant in pointing to the divine tenderness of God.” Once again, these are beautiful words. May they be lived out in reality as well.

- Near the end of Cupich’s talk, he started to give a very practical outline for how abuse cases against bishops might be handled. This is where the grand vision meets the real world - where all of this talk about accountability starts to play out in real life processes. Unfortunately, this is also where I started to feel pretty frustrated. Cupich’s proposed “concrete procedural steps” for the investigation of bishops all relied upon the local metropolitan bishop for oversight. (The “metropolitan” is the bishop who leads the “metropolitan see” of a wider area of the Catholic Church and has some limited authority over the other bishops in this area. For example, Cardinal Cupich, as Archbishop of Chicago, is the metropolitan for all of the dioceses in the state of Illinois.)

This approach to bishop accountability was the center of some debate at the USCCB’s November General Assembly, when Cupich introduced the “metropolitan solution” as an alternative to the proposed creation of an independent review board run by lay people who would investigate complaints against a bishop. Empowering a metropolitan bishop to investigate other bishops in his area might be the solution that fits most easily into current canon law, but does anyone honestly think that the best solution for real accountability is to have some bishops be in charge of investigating other bishops? I can write more about this later as things develop, but for now, I’ll just say this - Let's all remember that Theodore McCarrick was a metropolitan.


If you have made it to the end of this post, congratulations! I recognize that my “quick takes” became quite long (and technical), but there’s just so much to digest. I am working on Part 2 of this post, but I do need to pay attention to my family at some point, so I can’t promise I’ll be able to keep up with posting so promptly after each session. (I honestly don’t know how real journalists do it!) Still, I promise more observations to come, as soon as I am able.

In the meantime, let’s keep praying for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of all who are gathered in Rome right now.


Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest, and in our souls take up Thy rest; Come with Thy grace and heavenly aid to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O comforter, to Thee we cry, O heavenly gift of God Most High, O fount of life and fire of love, and sweet anointing from above. Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o'erflow with love; with patience firm and virtue high the weakness of our flesh supply.

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