• Sara Larson

Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 4 (Part 2)

The end at last! To anyone who has made it through all of these long and dense posts summarizing the happenings in Rome - Congratulations! (Need to catch up? You can start here to read through the whole sequence of posts.)

I know this series has offered a lot of information, but hopefully taking the time to read through these updates has made you feel more knowledgeable about the range of issues that are connected with the problem of clerical abuse. Being well-informed is an important part of being engaged!

I promise not all my future posts will not be quite so… much. But for now, here are my notes on the interesting final press briefing:

Sunday, February 24 - Press Briefing (Video)

In this final press conference, it was clear that all the people in the room - panelists and journalists alike - were focused on the question of what concrete actions would be coming out of the summit. The organizers seemed keen on convincing everyone that there really were practical changes coming, and the journalists spent a lot of time with raised eyebrows, asking skeptical questions. It was an interesting dynamic, one that revealed the fundamental public relations problem with this summit - While the organizers saw this meeting as a launching point for long-term initiatives, survivors and journalists came looking for immediate, definitive action. As I said in my first post about the summit, I suspected all along that most people would be disappointed with the results, and in the end, most people were.

- Father Lombardi, the moderator of the summit, tried to get out in front of this issue during his opening statement, outlining four concrete actions that will come from this meeting:

  1. The pope will be announcing new laws and processes for the protection of minors and vulnerable persons within the Vatican city-state. Apparently, these updates have been in the works for a while and will be published through a motu proprio in the near future. This appears to be an attempt to model appropriate guidelines for the rest of the world.

  2. A handbook will be released (within a few months) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to help bishops throughout the world understand their duties in protecting minors. Archbishop Scicluna clearly sees the release of this “clear and concise” document as an essential step to getting all bishops who were not at this summit on the same page. The handbook will be designed to walk through clear guidelines and processes for responding to an allegation of abuse.

  3. As Father Zollner had emphasized even before this summit, task forces are being formed to assist bishops’ conferences around the world who do not have the personnel, financial resources, or expertise to tackle this problem without support. It sounds like Zollner is the force behind this initiative, and although he recognized that the plan doesn’t “sound convincing,” he insisted strongly that, in the long term, it would bear fruit.

  4. Members of the organizing committee have mentioned several times that they would continue meeting after the summit wraps up. At this final press briefing, Scicluna specified that the committee would be meeting with the heads of all the dicastries of the Roman Curia at 9:00am on Monday to follow up on ideas that had been expressed at the meeting. I have been unable to find any information about the results of these meetings.

The efficacy of these planned efforts remains to be seen, but groups of survivors in Rome expressed strong disappointment at the lack of more immediate action. (As one reporter asserted, some survivors were “cautiously optimistic” as this summit began, but now “they feel like they’ve been duped.”) Indeed, all of the actions listed above are promises of what’s to come, not changes that took effect immediately.

- When pushed further on the question of concrete action, several of the speakers returned to the theme of “transformation,” arguing that the most important effect of this summit was a “change of heart.” I got the impression that Scicluna and Zollner were trying to describe a real conversion they perceived among participants, but understandably, their assertions fell a little flat in the face of challenges from those who expected more. I share the feeling of frustration at the slow pace of reform, but I also believe there is something to this “change of heart” assertion as well. Yes, the correct policies and procedures are important, but honestly, the experience of the past sixteen years in the United States should have taught us that all the rules in the world won’t make a difference if the ones in charge of enforcing them are not motivated to do so. I would like us to keep on pushing for the correct policies and procedures, but I’m also willing to believe that a transformation in the awareness and motivation of church leaders is an important part of creating real and lasting change.

- The conversion of individual bishops becomes especially important in light of the vision for implementation, which focuses heavily on the regional episcopal conferences. Cardinal Gracias reminded his listeners that “implementation has to be done at the local level,” and that it would be up to the leaders of bishops’ conferences to get their brother bishops on board to bring about real change on the ground. In what often appears to be a Church with very centralized power, it’s hard to understand why some directives can’t just come directly from the pope with a clear mandate for obedience. However, Pope Francis’s emphasis on working through collegiality and synodality seems to push him away from this kind of top-down solution.

- With so much of the implementation being left to the authority of individual bishops, the obvious question is, “Well, who is going to make sure they actually follow through?” When a reporter raised this query, Archbishop Scicluna couldn't really answer the question, which made me wonder if there are any concrete plans in place to guarantee that changes move forward in every area of the world.

- A large part of the dissatisfaction with this summit seems to come from the relative lack of attention given to punishing cover up of sexual abuse. While many speakers made clear that transparency was needed moving forward, there were only a few passing references to accountability for bishops who have been complicit in enabling abuse in the past. In this press conference, Scicluna asserted that it is now a “clear point in church policy that abuse of minors is an egregious crime - but so is cover up.”

Delia Gallagher, CNN’s Vatican correspondent, raised a very pointed question in this regard: “Why is this taking so long?... I think the reason for the frustration on the part of people is precisely that we have heard this ‘you need to listen to victims’ and so on. The pope himself asked for the concrete steps, and we don’t yet have them. In particular, there was a proposal in terms of bishops’ accountability. We spent today discussing accountability with all the bishops. We know there’s a proposal for how to hold bishops accountable, and I’d like to know what is the concrete step coming out of that, because it seems to me the most important one in terms of cover up.” I wanted to stand up and applaud at home when this persistent reporter asked just the right question, but unfortunately, she didn’t get a very clear answer. Scicluna responded that “these are legitimate expectations, and I understand the frustration,” then went on to explain the many difficulties in getting everyone to agree and move forward on concrete action. It sounds to me like he is pretty frustrated as well, and right now, I don’t foresee the Vatican producing a real solution for holding bishops accountable for cover up. Now that the summit is over, I hope the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will simply take action on its own.

- At press briefings throughout the week, it was interesting to observe reporters frequently raising questions on behalf of survivors. The advocacy groups who were present in Rome (especially the international organization “Ending Clergy Abuse”) were very effective at getting their message out to the media. It’s clear that journalists were listening to these survivors and trying to bring their concerns and criticisms to the summit organizers. One particularly clear example of this came near the end of Sunday's briefing, when a reporter clearly laid out the demands of survivors - “zero tolerance of the abuse of children, zero tolerance of bishops who cover it up, and complete transparency” - then asked, “Can you say that, at a minimum, the new standards will include those three things?” Scicluna gave a direct answer without conditions or qualifications: “Yes, those are essential. The expectations of the victims should be our expectations, and they are. We’ll work on that agenda, because we recognize that that is an important agenda. That is the way forward.” This is the closest we got to a commitment to “zero tolerance” from this meeting.

(Side note: I realized recently that reporting on the content of the summit without giving attention to the message of the survivors in Rome was my own little act of injustice, which I intend to remedy. My apologies. I was finally able to track down a full video of the ECA press conference in Rome so that I can raise up those voices as well. More on that soon.)

- The last question at this press conference was raised by a reporter from Argentina who asked, “How can we believe that this is in fact the last time we will hear ‘no more cover up’… Can we actually believe that this is going to change now?” She then referenced the recent case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina, who resigned from leadership in 2017 and was promptly given a position at the Vatican. It now appears that, since at least 2015, the Vatican knew of accusations of inappropriate behavior by Zanchetta - including suspicious behavior with seminarians, as well as pornography involving “young people” on his cell phone - but did not act. Questions remain about how much the pope himself knew about the case, but this particular journalist pointedly accused Pope Francis of covering up for Zanchetta.

This discussion was a fitting end to the press conference, and to the summit as whole, because ultimately, the Church’s response to clergy abuse all comes down to individual cases. All the speeches, prayers, and policies don’t mean anything until they are applied to real-life cases with real-life priests and real-life victims. This is where things get complicated and messy and where we see if all of the rhetoric means anything on the ground.

So, how did the Director of the Holy See Press Office reply to the question about Bishop Zanchetta?

“We have said that an investigation has been launched. It is ongoing, so we will inform you of the results once it has been completed. This is all I can say at the moment.”


Lord, give these leaders of the Church courage and persistence in bringing about real change.

As they return home to daily life in their own nations, strengthen them to work diligently for healing and reform.


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