Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit: Day 4 (Part 1)
(This post is part of a series about the summit for the protection of minors in the Church. Eight posts down, two more to go! You can find my previous posts here: Intro post, Day 1, Day 2 - Part 1, Day 2 - Part 2; Day 3 - Part 1, Day 3 - Part 2, Day 3 - Part 3.)
While the “working” portion of the Vatican abuse meeting ended last Saturday, the summit closed on Sunday with Mass, followed by a concluding address by Pope Francis. (I have strong feelings about that final speech, but more on that in a moment.)
Sunday, February 24
Concluding Address by Pope Francis (Text)
Eucharistic Celebration, with Homily by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane
- Archbishop Coleridge gave a thoughtful homily on power, evil, sacrifice, and the ongoing mission of the Church to protect young people. Abuse of power had not been given much emphasis during this summit, but Coleridge had this to say: “The pastors of the Church... have received a gift of power - power, however, to serve, to create; a power that is with and for, but not over... Power is dangerous, because it can destroy; and in these days we have pondered how in the Church, power can turn destructive when separated from service, when it is not a way of loving, when it becomes power over.”
- Coleridge went on to reflect on the Gospel call to love our enemies, but he was very careful to specify: “Who is the enemy? Surely not those who have challenged the Church to see abuse and its concealment for what they really are, above all the victims and survivors who have led us to the painful truth by telling their stories with such courage. At times, however, we have seen victims and survivors as the enemy. We have not loved them. We have not blessed them. In that sense, we have been our own worst enemy.” The long and ugly history of the clerical abuse scandal in the United States (as well as around the world) reveals a strong tendency for many church leaders to treat victims, journalists, and advocates as adversaries. I appreciated hearing several bishops address this problem during the summit.
- The homily ended with a succinct summary of the steps that the bishops must take moving forward: “A mission stretches before us - a mission demanding not just words but real concrete action. We will do all we can to bring justice and healing to survivors of abuse; we will listen to them, believe them and walk with them; we will ensure that those who have abused are never again able to offend; we will call to account those who have concealed abuse; we will strengthen the processes of recruitment and formation of Church leaders; we will educate all our people in what safeguarding requires; we will do all in our power to make sure that the horrors of the past are not repeated and that the Church is a safe place for all, a loving mother especially for the young and the vulnerable; we will not act alone but will work with all concerned for the good of the young and the vulnerable; we will continue to deepen our own understanding of abuse and its effects, of why it has happened in the Church and what must be done to eradicate it. All of this will take time, but we do not have forever and we dare not fail.”
Concluding Address by Pope Francis
Before I give you my take on this speech, I would recommend you read the talk yourself and form your own impressions: Address of the Holy Father Francis at the Conclusion of the Meeting on "The Protection of Minors in the Church.” (Pro tip: Don’t let your browser automatically translate things on the Vatican website. The English translation is already there if you scroll down, but if the whole page is auto-translated, you end up with a very convoluted English version.)
As I wrote earlier, the speakers at this summit have been saying all of the right things. With a few notable exceptions, I have found that the people presenting at the meeting or answering questions in the press briefings are giving thoughtful reflections and avoiding the obvious mistakes that so many American bishops have made in talking about the abuse crisis. I didn’t hear a single person blame the media or imply that victims are just out to hurt the Church. There was no deflecting the problem by talking about how widespread abuse is in the rest of society. I didn’t pick up defensiveness or bitterness or reluctance to act.
And then Pope Francis spoke.
I really wanted his concluding speech to be good. I wanted his words to be strong and determined, encouraging and hopeful. I wanted survivors’ groups to hear an unequivocal admission of the seriousness of the problem and a clear commitment to concrete measures for moving forward. I wanted the pope to address the widespread cover up of sexual abuse and to promise justice for those bishops who made it possible for more children to be hurt.
There was a lot I had hoped for in this speech.
I was disappointed.
I honestly don’t understand what happened. After so much really solid, thoughtful engagement with these issues, how did the pope end up sliding into the obvious mistakes that everyone else had carefully avoided? Did Pope Francis write this speech himself? If so, his choice of emphasis makes me worry that he doesn’t really get it after all. And if someone else wrote the speech for him, who in the world thought this was the best approach, and why did Pope Francis go ahead with it?
Granted, there were some high points in the talk. While secular folks might be skeptical of attempts to talk about this crisis as a spiritual battle, anyone who believes in the power of evil can see that evil is at work here. When Pope Francis says “we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable,” I agree. He also noted that “in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.” I agree with that too, and I appreciate the recognition that anger is an appropriate and even godly response in the face of grave injustice and evil. He mentioned the “holy, faithful People of God” as an essential part of addressing this problem, and he touched on the abuse of power that is often inherent in sexual abuse. All of this was good.
But Pope Francis also spent a fair portion of his speech offering information about the prevalence of abuse around the world and in all areas of society. While he did admit that “this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church,” it still felt strange to end what had been a tightly-focused conference with a lot of statistics about the prevalence of other abuse, particularly within families. Seeing it in the best light possible, I suppose Pope Francis could have been trying to put the Church’s problem with sexual abuse into a broader societal context and to indicate that the Church cares about all victims of abuse - whether the abuse takes place in the Church in other places in society.
Nevertheless, it was a strange turn of events that when he listed eight issues the Church will focus on in the days ahead, one of them was “sexual tourism,” but accountability for bishops who have covered up abuse was not on the list. Even the phrase that made it into some headlines - “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” - came as part of a concluding paragraph that seemed to focus more on the universal responsibility for preventing child abuse, not the particular responsibility for preventing abuse within the Church (“I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth: this is demanded by all the many victims hidden in families and in the various settings of our societies”). Of course, it would be valuable for our whole global community to work for the prevention of child abuse in all its forms, but I just don’t think this is the time and place for the Catholic Church to be the one calling for that effort.
Along with this problematic emphasis, Pope Francis also gave us a little stab at journalists (“the Church must rise above… journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones”) and called for an approach that avoids a “justicialism provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure.” When he gave his list of thank yous, the pope applauded good priests who are hurt by this scandal, and then thanked the “faithful who are well aware of the goodness of their pastors and who continue to pray for them and to support them.” Again, it’s not that these things aren’t important, but if Pope Francis wanted to offer gratitude to the laity, perhaps he could have thanked courageous survivors who have come forward, persistent journalists who have helped uncover the truth, lay people who are counseling victims, investigating crimes, or helping bring about reform. It is good to support our holy and faithful priests (God knows they need it right now!), but that is not the only way lay people are helping our Church move through this crisis, and I wish Pope Francis would have acknowledged us in some way beyond our “daily silence” and “stubborn hope.”
Does it sound like I’m quibbling over details now? Perhaps. All I know is that I was really disappointed in this speech. Based on what had happened in the summit up to this point, I had really hoped for something great to wrap things up. Unfortunately, Pope Francis let me down.
So, this is how the summit ends - not with a bang but a whimper.
You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy, turn not away lest you fall. You who fear the LORD, trust him, and your reward will not be lost. You who fear the LORD, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy. You who fear the LORD, love him, and your hearts will be enlightened. Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his commandments and been forsaken? has anyone called upon him and been rebuffed? Compassionate and merciful is the LORD; he forgives sins, he saves in time of trouble and he is a protector to all who seek him in truth.
- Sirach 2:7-11