• Sara Larson

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

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

(If you missed my previous posts about this week's meeting in Rome, you can see my intro post here, quick takes from Day 1 here, and quick takes from the morning of Day 2 here.)

Welcome back! Here’s what happened this afternoon:

Friday, February 22; Theme: Accountability

13:30 Press Conference (Video)

16.00 Third Presentation, by Dr. Linda Ghisoni, Undersecretary for the Dicastery for the Laity, Family,

and Life

(Video at 7:22, Text) Title: Communion - Act Together 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 more observations for today:

Press Conference

- I find the daily press briefing the most interesting and informative part of the day, especially when the journalists begin to ask questions. Several times today, a reporter raised a question that had been on my mind as well. It was really helpful to hear some responses, although I found myself wishing that the journalists could ask follow up questions when the replies from the panel were not particularly clear or thorough. Some in-depth, back-and-forth interviews would be really helpful!

- Today, I was happy to see Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston as one of the panelists at the briefing. I truly believe that he is one of the heroes of this story, as he has been quietly and persistently fighting for reform over the course of many years in leadership. Cardinal O’Malley was the one who had the courage to publicly rebuke Pope Francis for the pope’s hurtful words about the abuse accusations in Chile; Pope Francis listened to this criticism, apologized, and changed course. While O’Malley was left off of the organizing committee for this summit (to the disappointment and concern of many), I hope that he remains a key player in the hierarchical response to the abuse crisis. (If you would like to read more about Cardinal O’Malley, you can view this fascinating profile piece from The Atlantic.)

- There were some interesting comments about the role of the laity woven into the opening remarks by several members of the panel. The Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, Paolo Ruffini, was called upon to share some key topics that were discussed in the working groups. He raised up the discussion point that “the role of the laity should not be an exception, only resorted to in times of crisis.” (You can say that again!) Archbishop Scicluna returned to this theme later, staying that “participation of the laity in our discernment, in our structures of accountability is not optional, it is not an appendix, it is not an extra. It is fundamental to the well-being, but also to the being, of the Church. We need to walk together because we are on a pilgrimage together. That’s why we are synodal.”

The theme of co-responsibility with the laity has been emphasized many times already, and I understand that it will be an even more prominent theme tomorrow. I believe that there are some bishops who really do want to work more closely with the laity, but I also wonder if even the well-intentioned bishops really know how to go about doing this. This abuse summit itself is a great example of the difficulty - bishops are speaking emphatically about the important role of the laity - to a room with very few lay people present. Church leaders will have to really start thinking outside of their normal modes of operation to engage laity in a more authentic way.

- I was happy that a fair amount of the question and answer time was devoted to conversation about Cardinal Cupich’s “metropolitan solution" for the investigation of bishops. I was even more excited to hear Anne Thompson of CBS pose almost the exact question I had been pondering in my post about this morning’s presentations. Thompson obviously prepared to deliver this question with clarity and conviction - Props to her for speaking up in such a strong voice. Here’s what she asked: “Under your proposal today, Theodore McCarrick would have been a metropolitan. Cardinal Law would have been a metropolitan. So how does that inspire confidence? And who in the world is going to police the metropolitan?” Cupich replied with an explanation from the footnotes of his proposal (which were included in the written document but not in the oral delivery) about ways that other bishops might step up to investigate if the metropolitan himself were accused. But with this response, I think he is missing the point of her question and of mine. The metropolitan system might work if there is a broad base of integrity and buy-in among the vast majority of bishops and we are just talking about weeding out a rare “bad apple.” However, if the web of cover-up, silence, and complicity weaves in and out of many dioceses around the United States, and the laity have lost their basic trust in the integrity of their bishops, then putting the solution into the hands of these very bishops will do nothing to restore trust. While Cupich continued to give a nod to lay involvement in the metropolitan system, this arrangement simply cannot be trusted as an effective form of accountability for an episcopacy that is so deeply compromised.

- Another interesting conversation took place about the question of “zero tolerance.” The most vocal survivor advocates have insisted that this summit needs to establish a clear “zero tolerance” policy for any cleric who has ever abused a child; they ask every day why the Vatican has not taken this most basic step. This question was raised two different times in today’s briefing, and Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop Scicluna, and Father Lombardi each made an attempt to respond.

O’Malley simply affirmed the Church’s continual stance that no priest who has harmed a child can remain in ministry, and he argued that the absence of the phrase “zero tolerance” from conversations does not mean that the principle behind those words is not being affirmed. Scicluna made an honest but rather fumbling attempt to explain a distinction in canon law. If I understood him correctly, he was making the point that the prudential action of removing a priest from active ministry for the safety of children is a distinct action from the judicial punishment of dismissing him from the clerical state. "Zero tolerance" might apply to the first action, but not always to the second. Father Lombardi then jumped in to explain his own reasoning for not using the phrase “zero tolerance” in his extensive writing on this subject. He asserted that “[zero tolerance] clearly refers to a very limited aspect of the problem we’re confronting. The entire dimension of pastoral care for victims, accompaniment, selection of members of the clergy, prevention in parishes and in our activities… The definition of zero tolerance does not cover these aspects. It refers to one way of punitive action against criminals. This is a very important, fundamental part, but it is one part of the entire area of protection of minors, which I think is much broader, and I think that at this meeting, we’re looking at it in a much broader context.” However, Lombardi went on to throw a bone to those who are emphasizing the importance of zero tolerance: “It’s very important to Americans, Canadians. It means something very specific - anyone who has committed a serious offense, they cannot remain in ministry. Well, I agree.”

It sounds to me like these men who have spent so much time dealing with the complexities of clergy sexual abuse are somewhat reluctant to sum up their work with a sound bite, even if it’s the sound bite that many are looking for. They also seem to be expressing some concern as to whether there’s a mutually understood definition of what zero tolerance means. Regardless of these concerns, my advice to these gentlemen would be - just say it. Define what you mean by zero tolerance (that no priest with a substantiated accusation of abuse of a minor can ever serve in ministry again?) and then start saying it, loud and clear, for every survivor who needs to hear it. Then, even more importantly, start doing it.

- One part of me wants to tell the American reporters to stop asking only about the particular issues in the United States (and directing their questions only to the American cardinals). However, the other part of me is really grateful when a journalist from the United States is called on, because I know they’re going to be asking about the issues that are most pressing in the United States right now. For example, the press conference ended with a brief inquiry into the ongoing questions about the case of Theodore McCarrick. Cardinals O’Malley and Cupich stated that the Vatican and diocesan investigations are ongoing and that we should see a report “in the not too distant future.” So, no new information there.

Third Presentation, by Dr. Linda Ghisoni; Communion - Act Together

- Dr. Ghisoni’s presentation was a more theological reflection on the Church as “a mystery of communion.” Over the course of her talk, she argued that accountability flows from this communion and that systems of accountability should not be viewed as a sign of distrust, but rather as the natural result of a Church in which all of the baptized are responsible to one another in living out the mission of Jesus Christ. There were some really interesting points in her reflection, but unfortunately, the English translation of her written text is very confusing, choppy, and difficult to read. I assume this is just the result of poor translation, but unfortunately, this deficiency takes away from the power of her reflection.

- Dr Ghisoni spent several minutes discussing the importance of lay people in the work of the Church, including this little gem about increasing the role of the laity: “It is not a matter of grabbing places or functions or of sharing power: the call to be People of God gives us a mission that everyone is called to live according to the gifts received, not alone, but precisely as a people.” I think that this is an important distinction - Giving greater voice and authority to the laity is not primarily about filling roles or giving power. Instead, it is about calling all of God’s people to use their gifts to serve the mission of Jesus Christ together.

- I also appreciate Dr. Ghisoni’s brief caution about what I would call “idealizing” the laity: “It is erroneous, in my view, to argue that the involvement of the laity in such matters that touch the ordained ministers is a guarantee of greater correctness, as they would be “third parties” with respect to events... As a lay woman, I must honestly note that among… the laity there are people who are not free, but would be willing to cover up and collaborate with someone instead of giving a loving, intelligent, and free service to the Church.” I agree. Just because someone is not ordained doesn’t automatically make them honest, courageous, and holy. We don’t just need lay leaders in the Church - we need the right lay leaders, just like we need the right ordained leaders. Most of all, what we really need are faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, working together to serve the Church.


Alright, I think that does it for today. I’m heading to an evangelization workshop for a good part of the day tomorrow (hat tip to the awesome Archdiocesan staff members who run the transformative Missionary Discipleship Institute in Milwaukee!). So, I won’t be able to post my observations about Day 3 until later. Until then, let’s pray together:


Loving God, we know your hand is at work in Rome this week -

in the participants at the summit as well as the survivors who are gathered to speak out.

Please lead and guide all these men and women to truth, wisdom, and holiness, today and always.

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