• Sara Larson

Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 3 (Part 2)

(This post is part of a series about the summit for the protection of minors in the Church. For the rest of my observations, check out my intro post here, then Day 1, Day 2 - Part 1 and Part 2, and Day 3 - Part 1.)

The Vatican abuse summit wrapped up with Mass on Sunday morning, so perhaps you have already read news reports summarizing the whole event. As for me, I’m still back on the afternoon of Day 3. I wish I could have kept up with the timeline at the Vatican, but I want to make sure I’m giving enough attention and reflection to everything that has been happening at the meeting. There’s just so much to unpack!

Here are the schedule and links for Saturday afternoon:

Saturday, February 23; Theme: Transparency

10.00 Second Presentation, by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising

(Video, Text) Title: Transparency as a Community of Believers

10.30 Questions 10.45 Coffee Break 11.05 Working Groups 12.30 Conclusion

13:30 Press Conference (Video)

Presentation by Cardinal Reinhard Marx: Transparency as a Community of Believers

- This was a refreshingly practical presentation about the role of “administration” in building a more transparent church. Cardinal Marx began with a joke about how Germans are known for being very focused on policies and procedures, and he recognized that not everyone is excited to talk in detail about administration in the Church. “Is it not clear,” he asked, “that administration puts files in focus, instead of people and their needs? Is it not true that administration only creates additional work and distracts from the real tasks?” Recognizing these possible objections, Marx laid out some very clear arguments for why thoughtful, careful administration (rules, processes, record-keeping, etc.) is key to addressing the problem of clergy abuse and also to regaining the trust of the laity: “The Spirit of God cannot possibly be captured in a file or folder… [However,] the actions of the Church in this world cannot be strictly and solely spiritual. Neglecting the worldly aspects of the Church and its own laws does not do justice to the reality of the Church.” I particularly appreciated his point that clearly established universal procedures “prevent arbitrariness” and “ensure that decisions and judgments are not merely based on the whims of those carrying them out.” Because our leaders seem to have varying levels of commitment and integrity on this issue, I hope that some universal norms might help standardize a minimum level of best practices.

- While Cardinal Marx is obviously a great lover of rules, guidelines, and procedures, he also recognized the shadow side of these elements: “This power of administration can also be misused. This is the case, for example, if administration forgets its function of serving the different people living together and cooperating to achieve higher goals; if the administration is only preoccupied with itself; if rules and regulations are only used to sustain the administration or the power of persons. This is abuse of power by the administration. What this can mean is clearly apparent at this time. The sexual abuse of children and youths is in no small measure due to the abuse of power in the area of administration. In this regard, administration has not contributed to fulfilling the mission of the Church, but on the contrary, has obscured, discredited, and made it impossible.”

This is the point in the talk when Marx made the much-reported admission that “files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed.” Honestly, I can’t figure out why this made headlines. Marx was not admitting anything new - The destruction of files in various dioceses (including here in Milwaukee, by former Archbishop Rembert Weakland) is well-documented. This is certainly not the strongest “admission of guilt” statement from a presenter at this summit, so I don’t think it really merited a headline.

- I appreciated Cardinal Marx’s emphasis on the appropriate treatment of victims during the process of investigating an accusation of abuse. He hopes for a time when “the people encountering the administration are not faced with an anonymous, incomprehensible power structure.” While Marx was mostly focused on a proper administrative response (clear procedures for regularly informing victims of the progression of a case), other presenters have also spoken of improving the treatment of victims throughout the process, including an emphasis on compassionate pastoral care.

- Cardinal Marx emphasized “traceability” as an important part of the transparency needed. Essentially, he’s arguing for keeping and sharing clear records in all matters relating to clerical abuse, so that the entire process, not just an end result, can be made transparent. Good point. (Could we get some of that "traceability" in the investigation into Theodore McCarrick, please?)

- Near the end of his talk, Cardinal Marx laid out four actions he argued should be undertaken immediately. His description was very succinct and clear, so I will just share them from the text of his talk:

  1. Definition of the goal and the limits of pontifical secrecy: The social changes of our time are increasingly characterized by changing communication patterns. In the age of social media, in which each and every one of us can almost immediately establish contact and exchange information via Facebook, Twitter, etc., it is necessary to redefine confidentiality and secrecy, and to distinguish them from data protection. If we do not succeed, we either squander the chance to maintain a level of self determination regarding information, or we expose ourselves to the suspicion of covering up.

  2. Transparent procedural norms and rules for ecclesiastical processes: Court proceedings as legal remedies are meaningless without adequate legal and procedural rules, as this would be tantamount to arbitrariness when it comes to passing judgments. This would represent a lack of transparency in relation to the specific actions. Establishing transparent procedural norms and rules for ecclesiastical processes is essential. The Church must not operate below the quality standards of public administration of justice, if it doesn’t want to face criticism that it has an inferior legal system, which is harmful to people.

  3. Public announcement of statistics on the number of cases, and details thereof, as far as possible: Institutional mistrust leads to conspiracy theories regarding an organisation, and the formation of myths about an organisation. This can be avoided if the facts are set out transparently.

  4. Publication of judicial proceedings: Proper legal proceedings serve to establish the truth, and form the basis for imposing a punishment which is appropriate for the relevant offense. In addition, they establish trust in the organisation and its leadership. Lingering doubts about the proper conduct of court proceedings only harm the reputation and the functioning of an institution. This principle also applies to the Church.

Administrative changes like these might not be high-profile, headline-grabbing reform, but I agree with Cardinal Marx that small steps like this are an important part of the transformation needed.

Daily Press Briefing

- Once again, Sister Veronica Openibo stole the show. Her presence on the panel at the press conference today transformed the whole atmosphere - not because she’s a woman, or a religious sister, or a Nigerian, but because she radiates peace and hope, even while speaking honestly about the darkness. This beautiful woman is my new hero. When it was Sister Openibo’s turn to share a few opening remarks, she started by saying “Good afternoon” to the media and offering them a warm smile, saying that in her culture, a person must always offer a greeting. (You can see Openibo speak for about five minutes in this video, beginning around 31:40. It's a nice little glimpse at her personality, if you've got the time.)

Sister Openibo went on to describe something that had happened right before the press conference began. (You can actually see the moment that she’s describing if you watch the first few seconds of the video.) Apparently, her name card had been set up at the far end of the table, but the men on the panel shuffled around to put her right in the middle, saying “you cannot be on the end.” With her face lighting up, Sister Openibo declared to the room, “that’s progress!” and explained, with a little chuckle, that it used to be that bishops and priests always came first. Giving this woman a more central place at the table might be a small gesture, but I trust that she truly felt a difference in the way she was treated, at least among this little group of men, and I am glad for that.

At the end of her remarks, Sister Openibo turned to a more pastoral reflection and invitation to hope. I get the sense that she can’t help but think of any group of people, including a room full of reporters, as precious souls in need of God’s love. After talking about some of the practicalities of the summit, she proclaimed, “As a church, we are people of the Resurrection. We are people of hope, and we must bring that hope to everyone.” She then added that this calling was not just for the speakers on the panel, but for “all of us in this room,” with a gesture out to the sea of photographers and reporters listening. I wonder if anyone in that room felt a little stirring of the Holy Spirit when this graceful woman declared a second time, “We must be people of hope.”

- The opening remarks from the other members of the panel paled in comparison to Sister Openibo's preaching, but there were some notable themes. Several of the men spoke about how deeply moved they were by the abuse survivor who shared her testimony the night before. (I believe this is the talk they are referring to, but the website doesn't make this totally clear.) Father Lombardi called the survivor's witness “the most intense moment of the meeting so far,” and others seemed to echo that experience, with Archbishop Scicluna saying that “her narrative changed our hearts, transformed our hearts.” I hope this is true not just of the key leaders of this summit, but of every person sitting in that auditorium.

- It was also interesting to hear some of the veteran church leaders, those who have participated in many large gatherings of bishops, talk about how different this atmosphere is from those they have experienced in the past. While the environment in the conference hall looks pretty cold and stiff to me, I do hear people talking with great enthusiasm for their “working groups.” These are the smaller groups that gathered in the mornings for deeper and more practical conversation. I really wish I could be a fly on the wall during those meetings, because I get the impression that these groups are where the most important work of the summit is happening. Several panelists talked about their experience of positive, open, honest dialogue, which apparently feels new and exciting to them. I hope this collaborative spirit does make a difference in their ability to work together for the renewal of the Church.


This post has gotten really long already, so I’ll finish up my observations of Day 3 next time. Thank you for following along! I promise my posts won’t always be so long and dense, but I do think it’s really valuable for all of us to be better informed as we seek the healing and renewal of the Church that we love.


The recessional hymn we sang at mass this morning seems a perfect prayer today for all of us,

ordained and laity alike:

God, whose purpose is to kindle, now ignite us with your fire; While the earth awaits your burning, with your passion us inspire. Overcome our sinful calmness, stir us with your saving name. Baptize with your fiery Spirit, crown our lives with tongues of flame. God, who still a sword delivers rather than a placid peace, With your sharpened Word disturb us, from complacency release! Save us now from satisfaction, when we privately are free, Yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor’s misery. God, who in your holy gospel wills that all should truly live, Make us sense our share of failure, our tranquility forgive. Teach us courage as we struggle in all liberating strife. Lift the smallness of our vision by your own abundant life.

PS: In Spirit and Truth now has a Facebook page! I hope this will make it even easier for new folks to find this resource and for all of us to engage in conversation and action together. (Because none of us are in control of what the Facebook algorithms show us, I still encourage everyone to subscribe to email notifications directly from the blog so that you don't miss anything.)

Would you please take a few seconds right now to "like" and "follow" the Facebook page, and then invite a few friends that you think might be interested? Thank you!

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