The Whole Abuse Summit In One Really Long Blog Post
(If you have already been following my coverage of the Vatican abuse summit, feel free to ignore this post! This is simply a compilation of all my previous writing into one post, to make it easier for new folks to catch up.)
If you have been following the unfolding clergy abuse crisis, you know that Pope Francis recently hosted an unprecedented four-day summit in Rome last week, on the topic of “Protection of Minors in the Church.” The presidents of episcopal conferences from all around the world were in attendance, along with the heads of religious congregations and other important church leaders. Journalists, photographers, and survivors’ groups from across the globe all converged on Rome, watching and waiting to see what would happen at the meeting.
I have spent the last ten days completely immersed in the proceedings of the summit, watching and reading along so that I can give you an informed perspective on what happened in Rome. There was a LOT of content to digest - transcripts and videos of the presentations, documents released to the media, a daily press conference, and more - so I have done my best to condense all of this into what is most essential to understanding this summit. Yes, it's long, but if we care about working for the healing and renewal of the Catholic Church, we need to take the time to be well-informed.
For each day, I have listed the official schedule of events, with links to where you can read and view the content online in English. If you have the time and interest, it’s definitely worth checking out some of these resources firsthand, rather than just reading reports of what other people found interesting or important. (Unfortunately, the question and answer periods and workings groups were not recorded; I imagine some of the most interesting conversation happened during those times!)
Alright, shall we begin?
Thursday, February 21; Theme: Responsibility
9:00 Opening prayer (Video)
Video Testimonials from Survivors (Text)
9.30 First Presentation, by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila
10.15 Second Presentation, by Monsignor Charles Jude Scicluna, Archbishop of Malta
11.00 Coffee Break
11.20 Working Groups
13.30 Press Briefing (Video)
16.00 Third Presentation, by Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez, Archbishop of Bogotá
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
- The day began with prayer. I’m not sure who chose the Scripture reading, but man, did they nail it. Participants heard these words from the book of Sirach, chapter 4 - “From the needy do not turn your eyes; do not give them reason to curse you. If in their pain they cry out bitterly, their Rock will hear the sound of their cry.” Quite a poignant exhortation, especially when read in the soft but clear voice of a tiny, white-clad religious sister. (Also, side note for those who occasionally slip into mass a few minutes late - apparently even bishops sometimes have to sneak in during an opening prayer!)
Introduction by Pope Francis
- Pope Francis’s introductory remarks were brief and not particularly notable, except this one line that stood out to me: “The holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete.” This word “concrete” came up several other times throughout the day. I don’t know whether this means that practical action steps really will be agreed upon at this meeting, but at least organizers seem to recognize that we, the Church, are looking for real action, not just empty words.
- At the beginning of the day, participants were given a document containing 21 “reflection points” that briefly summarize concrete steps that can be taken at a local level to address clergy sexual abuse. You can view those points here. Pope Francis said that these ideas were compiled from the suggestions of various episcopal conferences and that they are meant to be a starting point for dialogue. At the press briefing later in the day, Archbishop Scicluna hesitated to call them “orders” from the Holy Father, but these points definitely seemed to be designed to offer basic guidelines for bishops to set policy on the local level. Most of these steps (such as codes of conduct for church personnel, background checks, reporting mechanisms, and psychological screening for seminarians) are already established policy in the United States but would be new procedures in other parts of the world.
- One point on this list that seemed to take many by surprise was the suggestion to raise the universal minimum age for marriage under canon law to 16 years old. (Apparently right now the minimum age is 16 for boys and 14 for girls.) There seemed to be some confusion among American and European prelates and journalists about the reason this point was included in a statement about clerical abuse. However, during the press briefing, Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia commented that an African bishop told him that in his country, once a girl was of “marriageable age,” sexual contact was no longer considered abuse. It may be that this particular suggestion came from bishops of Africa, who thought changing the canonical age for marriage would better protect 14 and 15 year old girls from abuse.
Video Testimonials from Survivors
- Prerecorded video testimonies were given by five abuse victims from around the world. Honoring the request of these victims, their identities were not revealed to the public and only a written text was made available to the press. It seems that these stories were meant to make a strong impression on the participants and to give an appropriate gravitas to the following conversations. In the press briefing, summit organizer Father Hans Zollner emphasized how important it was to have survivors from different countries and cultures speak, so that all participants would be clear that clergy sexual abuse is a universal problem. This issue came up, in subtle ways, throughout the day; it seems that the meeting organizers are aware that bishops from some areas of the world are not convinced of the seriousness or universality of the problem. Organizers clearly hope that this meeting will change their minds. (The worldwide, multicultural nature of the Catholic Church does make any unified effort more complex. I hope to write more on this challenge in a future post.)
Presentation by Cardinal Tagle: Smell of the Sheep - Knowing Their Pain and Healing Their Wounds is at the Heart of the Shepherd's Task
- Cardinal Tagle’s reflection on a bishop’s responsibility to heal wounds set a much-needed pastoral tone for the meeting. He was certainly the most dynamic and emotive speaker of the day, even tearing up at a few points during his talk. I appreciate that Tagle began with these strong and challenging words for bishops: “The abuse of minors by ordained ministers has inflicted wounds not only on the victims, but also on their families, the clergy, the Church, the wider society, the perpetrators themselves and the Bishops. But, it is also true, we humbly and sorrowfully admit, that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims and in fact the entire body of Christ. Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution has injured our people, leaving a deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve.” Many people, myself included, wish that this summit would be giving more attention to the issues of secrecy and cover up, so I am glad that Cardinal Tagle addressed this directly.
Presentation by Archbishop Scicluna: Taking Responsibility for Processing Cases of Sexual Abuse Crisis and for Prevention of Abuse
- I am increasingly impressed by Archbishop Scicluna. I already knew he had a reputation as a strong and effective agent for reform in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse (he was the one Pope Francis sent to investigate the situation in Chile - with powerful results). Learning more about Scicluna’s work and seeing him in action at two press conferences, I feel really encouraged that he has been given so much responsibility by Pope Francis. At a time when I’m feeling pretty distrustful of many church leaders, I am realizing that I actually trust this man. That feels good. (Scicluna’s presentation at the meeting today was very important, detailed, and practical - but also pretty boring. I hope that bishops really take time to digest his many concrete recommendations and bring them back to their countries.)
- The mid-day press conference was fascinating. I took about four pages of notes, and there’s a lot I need to process. One thing I took note of: Father Zollner spoke several times about the need for a heartfelt commitment on the part of each individual bishop. Both he and Scicluna seemed very aware that the Church needs policies and procedures in place, but that these rules will not be nearly as effective if those in authority aren’t sufficiently motivated to implement them. My impression is that some of the church leaders who care deeply about this issue (Zollner and Scicluna, for example) are really hoping that this summit can bring about a change of heart in some of those who are resisting change or implementing policies only halfheartedly. It remains to be seen whether this meeting will have that hoped-for effect.
Presentation by Cardinal Gómez: Responsibility of the Bishop - Dealing with Conflicts and Tensions and Acting Decisively
- Cardinal Gomez’s powerful talk began with a strong condemnation of clericalism and a few attempts to clarify the meaning of this much-used buzzword. He defined clericalism as “the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest,” and he told his fellow bishops that “we are hardly ever aware that it underlies our way of conceiving ministry and acting at decisive moments.” I was most struck by the portion of his talk where he offered several challenges to bishops, including this one: “We have to recognize this crisis in its full depth: to realize that the damage is not done by outsiders but that the first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within.” After this, Gomez went through a list of unhelpful episcopal responses (minimizing the problem by pointing out abuse in other institutions, treating the media like an enemy, etc.) that coincide with many of my own observations. His talk left me thinking that at least some bishops really do “get it” - and that they are desperately trying to get through to their brother bishops who are resisting real reform.
Friday, February 22; Theme: Accountability
9.15 First Presentation, by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai
10.00 Second Presentation, by Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago
10.45 Coffee Break
11.05 Working Groups
13.30 Press Briefing (Video)
16.00 Third Presentation, by Dr. Linda Ghisoni, Undersecretary for the Dicastery for the Laity, Family,
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Saturday, February 23; Theme: Transparency
9.15 First Presentation, by Sister Veronica Openibo, Superior General of the Society of the Holy
10.00 Second Presentation, by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising
10.45 Coffee Break
11.05 Working Groups
13.30 Press Briefing (Video)
16.00 Third Presentation, by Dr. Valentina Alazraki, Mexican Journalist and Vatican Correspondent
16.40 Coffee Break
- As I’ve come to expect, the Scripture reading, Ephesians 5:1-11, seemed to be chosen to give a strong challenge to everyone seated in the conference hall: “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ… Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them.” Amen to that.
- After the Scripture reading, words from an abuse survivor were proclaimed to the assembly: “I feel like a beggar at the door of the castle, a beggar for truth, for justice, for light. And all I get is silence and the smallest pieces of information which I have to extract. I get tired and worn out. It’s like they hide behind their walls, their dignity, their roles that I don’t understand. It hurts because I was abused, because they don’t tell the truth, and because those who should be ministers of truth and light hide in darkness.” In the two minutes of silent reflection that followed, I wondered again who had planned the prayers for this meeting, and I thanked God that this planner was willing to be bold and challenging. We’ll just have to trust that the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
Presentation by Sister Veronica Openibo: Openness to the World as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission
Remember the African woman in the brightly patterned head scarf that I kept noticing in the back row of the conference hall? The one whose voice I wanted to hear?
Apparently, that woman is Sister Veronica Openibo - And she was the speaker this morning. I guess we get to hear her voice after all. (Spoiler alert: Yes, she was appropriately awesome.) Well played, Holy Spirit, well played.
- I glanced at a few headlines about the abuse summit today, and I saw a lot of titles like “A nun just read the riot act to Catholic bishops over clergy sex abuse” and “Nun blasts the Catholic Church's ‘culture of silence’.” While I agree that Sister Openibo’s words were challenging, it’s an interesting glimpse at media bias to note that this language wasn’t used to describe any of the similarly-challenging presentations by bishops. I suppose “bishop blasts bishops” doesn’t make for a catchy headline.
- That said, Sister Openibo’s talk really was different than all those that had come before - not so much because of what she said, but because of how she said it. It’s hard to pin down exactly what made her presentation so unique, but if you watched clips from all of the talks (including the laywoman who spoke yesterday), you could play a very easy game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Openibo was the first speaker who conveyed any kind of warmth, who seemed to make a conscious effort to connect with her audience. She was the first to make a lighthearted comment that won a few laughs. She was the first to pause for a short prayer in the middle of her talk (a moment of quiet after she pleaded “Lord, have mercy on us.”). She was only the second (after Cardinal Tagle) to spend any significant time reflecting on Scripture or to use the name of Jesus repeatedly. None of these “firsts” quite captures what was so striking about her presence, so I would encourage you to watch her talk at the video linked above. Reading the transcript just doesn’t do it justice.
- Near the beginning of her presentation, Sister Openibo raised several key questions: “At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission. Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs, and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope?” Openibo spent a fair portion of her talk offering practical suggestions for change, including publishing not just names but complete information about credibly accused clergy, building research-based policies and procedures for safeguarding youth, and training priests and seminarians about appropriate boundaries.
- It would be best for you to read or watch her talk yourself, but in case you don’t time for that, I thought I would share a few of my favorite lines. I’m presenting them without comment, so that Sister Openibo can speak for herself:
“We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church.”
“The hierarchical structure and systems in the Church should be a blessing for us to reach the whole world with very clear mechanisms to address this and many other issues. Why has this not happened enough? Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general?”
“The fact that there are huge issues of poverty, illness, war, and violence in some countries in the Global South does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored. The Church has to be proactive in facing it.”
“The excuse that respect be given to some priests by virtue of their advanced years and hierarchical position is unacceptable. This argument states that many of the criminal offenders are old, some no longer alive, and that we should not hurt them or their reputations by taking away their priesthood in old age. We can feel sad for those who, when they were younger, committed offences that are now being brought out to the open. But my heart bleeds for many of the victims who have lived with the misplaced shame and guilt of repeated violations for years.”
“We know that abusers have often been victims themselves. Do we need to probe deeply what we mean by justice with compassion? How can we help create the environment for prayer and discernment for the grace of God to enlighten us in the way of justice, so that transformation and healing may take place for both victims and offenders?”
“It worries me when I see in Rome, and elsewhere, the youngest seminarians being treated as though they are more special than everyone else, thus encouraging them to assume, from the beginning of their training, exalted ideas about their status.”
“The study of human development must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminaries. The formation of young women religious, too, can often lead to a false sense of superiority over their lay sisters and brothers, that their calling is a ‘higher’ one. What damage has that thinking done to the mission of the Church? Have we forgotten the reminder by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes of the universal call to holiness?”
“We need to ask responsible and sensitive lay people and women religious to give true and honest evaluation of candidates for episcopal appointments.”
“The impact of damaged faith in the Church cannot be under-emphasized, as a large number of Catholics are and will be angry and confused.”
“Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by. Our credibility is at stake.”
- After the conversation about “zero tolerance” at yesterday’s press briefing, I thought it was interesting to note that Sister Openibo was the first to use that exact phrase in a presentation. She urged the assembly to “release the oppressed and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor by taking the necessary steps and maintaining zero tolerance with regard to sexual abuse.”
- One of the most impressive things in Sister Openibo’s presentation was a gutsy move she made at the very end, when she addressed Pope Francis directly. Here’s what she said: “I read with great interest many articles about the Pope’s reactions in the case of the Chilean bishops – from a denial of accusations, to anger because of deception and cover up, to the acceptance of resignations of three of the bishops. I admire you, Brother Francis, for taking time as a true Jesuit, to discern and be humble enough to change your mind, to apologize and take action – an example for all of us. Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing this opportunity for us to check and see where we have acted strangely, ignorantly, secretly, and complacently.” Whoa. It’s a rare thing to hear a church leader actually draw attention to Pope Francis’s mistakes in Chile, but to do so while sitting right next to him and calling him “brother”? That’s guts. What makes it even more beautiful is that she was able to take the pope’s mistake and present it as a teaching example for the bishops gathered, encouraging all of them to be “humble enough to change your mind.” A masterful move to wrap up her speech.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
Presentation by Dr. Valentina Alazraki: Communication - To All People
- In my mind, including a journalist as the final presenter at this summit is a powerful statement in and of itself. While some church leaders continue to treat the media as an enemy, there seems to be a movement among at least some leaders to express gratitude for the truth-finding role of the media and to see journalists as allies in the fight against abuse, corruption, and complacency in the Catholic Church. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for all of the persistent journalists who have helped bring to light the truth about clergy sexual abuse. I truly believe the Holy Spirit is working through their efforts, bringing purifying light to the Church that so desperately needs it.
- Father Lombardi’s introduction for Dr. Alazraki was very complimentary, and he testified to the depth of her experience covering the Vatican for the Mexican news media since 1974. Lombardi spoke about this veteran journalist with genuine affection, which I hope set the stage for truly receptive listening among the meeting participants. I think all of us who are newly engaged with the issue of clerical abuse and cover up would do well to listen to the wisdom and experience of those who have been paying attention to this issue for many years.
- At the beginning of her talk, Dr. Alazraki focused not so much on her role as a journalist but on her vocation as a mother. As the mom of two teenage boys myself, I do believe that mothers have much to contribute to this conversation, and I am glad Alazraki drew attention to that aspect of her experience.
- Only a few minutes into her speech, Dr. Alazraki delivered a strong challenge to all of those present: “Ask yourselves: are you enemies... of those who commit abuse or who cover it up? We have decided which side to be on. Have you done so truly, or in word alone? If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side. We can be allies, not enemies. We will help you to find the rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones. But if you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.” How’s that for bold speech?
- Another important assertion: “We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role. Stealing, for example, is wrong, but if the one stealing is a police officer it seems more serious to us, because it is the opposite of what he or she should do.” I completely agree with her point. While I am well aware of the widespread nature of the problem of childhood sexual abuse, I also believe that it is perfectly reasonable for the Church to be held to a higher standard than others in society. Rather than complain about that high standard, let’s rise to the challenge and be the safest place in the world for children. I do believe it’s possible.
- Another gem: “I think you should be aware that the more you cover up, the more you play ostrich, fail to inform the mass media and thus, the faithful and public opinion, the greater the scandal will be. If someone has a tumor, it is not cured by hiding it from one’s family or friends; silence will not make it heal.”
- Dr. Alazraki was the first at the summit to mention the role of money in this crisis: “Behind the silence, the lack of healthy, transparent communication, quite often there is not only the fear of scandal, concern for the institution’s good name, but also money, compensation, gifts, construction permits… I am speaking of what I have seen and thoroughly investigated. Pope Francis always reminds us that the devil enters through the pockets, and he is absolutely right. Transparency will help you to fight economic corruption.” Personally, I would like to see more investigative journalism looking into any financial misconduct that might be wrapped in with the cover up - I bet there is still much to be uncovered.
- Dr. Alazraki was also the first presenter to explicitly mention the growing scandal regarding the sexual abuse of nuns and women religious by priests. As more and more reports come in from all over the world, this very well may be the “next scandal” faced by the Catholic Church, at a time when we are still struggling to respond to the scandal of child sexual abuse. In a rather optimistic turn, Alazraki suggested that this emerging abuse issue could be an opportunity for the Church to finally be on the side of honesty and transparency, to “play offense and not defense,” to be leaders in bringing the truth to light.
- The end of Dr. Alazraki’s presentation was particularly powerful: “I hope that after this meeting you will return home and not avoid [journalists] but instead seek us out. That you will return to your dioceses thinking that we are not vicious wolves, but, on the contrary, that we can join our forces against the real wolves.” I pray that all church leaders can come to see those of us fighting for change - journalists, survivors, activists, and amateur bloggers alike - not as enemies but as essential allies in the fight against the real wolves.
- Saturday’s session ended with a “Penitential Liturgy” led by Pope Francis. Now, I know there is quite a lot of disdain these days for “thoughts and prayers” as a response to any kind of social ill. Of course, I agree that prayer does not erase our obligation to act in other concrete ways, but if we are people of faith, we believe that prayer really does matter. We believe that we are invited to live in relationship with God, who is the source of our strength and our hope. We believe that we cannot do this alone. So, we pray.
- It was a beautifully designed liturgy, full of song, Scripture, and silence, but this was not just a feel-good exercise. The whole liturgy was obviously designed to convict the hearts of all those gathered, to invite them to consider their own sins and failings and beg for the Lord’s mercy. The prayer began with Attende Domini (“hear us, O Lord, and have mercy, because we have sinned against you”) and Psalm 130 (“out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry”). Pope Francis’s opening prayer begged God, “give us the courage to tell the truth and the wisdom to know where we have sinned and need forgiveness.”
- Archbishop Philip Naameh of Tamale, Ghana gave a challenging homily, reflecting on the familiar story of the prodigal son and asking each bishop to see himself as the son who has wandered away and needs to come back to the Father’s embrace. You can read the full text of his brief homily here, but this was my favorite section: “Just like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we have also demanded our inheritance, got it, and now we are busy squandering it… Too often we have kept quiet, looked the other way, avoided conflicts – we were too smug to confront ourselves with the dark sides of our Church. We have thereby squandered the trust placed in us.”
I also appreciated Archbishop Naameh’s recognition of the loss that may be coming for many church leaders: “The prodigal son in the Gospel loses everything – not only his inheritance, but also his social status, his good standing, his reputation. We should not be surprised if we suffer a similar fate, if people talk badly about us, if there is distrust toward us, if some threaten to withdraw their material support. We should not complain about this, but instead ask what we should do differently… As with the son who returns home in the Gospel, everything is not yet accomplished – at the very least, he must still win over his brother again. We should also do the same: win over our brothers and sisters in the congregations and communities, regain their trust, and re-establish their willingness to cooperate with us, to contribute to establishing the kingdom of God.”
- After the homily, participants heard the testimony of another clergy abuse survivor, who offered challenging words about the devastation childhood sexual abuse brought into his life. It was particularly powerful to see the man who had just given this witness then pick up a violin and play a clear, haunting melody to accompany a time of reflective prayer.
- The spiritual culmination of this service was a long, slow examination of conscience for church leaders. I have not been able to find the complete text of these questions online anywhere (at least in English), so I am transcribing them here. The assembly entered into a period of silence after each of these sets of probing questions:
What abuses have been committed against children and young people by clergy and others in the church of my country? What do I know about the people in my diocese who have been abused and violated by priests, deacons, and religious? How has the church in my country responded to those who have experienced the abuse of power, of conscience, and sexual abuse? What obstacles have we put in their way? Have we listened to them? Have we tried to help them? Have we sought justice for them? Have I lived up to my personal responsibilities?
In the church of my country, how have we dealt with bishops, priests, deacons, and religious accused of sexual assault? How did we deal with those whose crimes were established? What have I personally done to prevent injustice and establish justice? What have I failed to do?
What attention have we given in my country to people whose faith has been shaken and who have suffered and have been hurt indirectly by these horrific events? Is there any help for the families and relatives of those affected? Did we help the people in the parishes where the accused and the perpetrators worked? Have I allowed myself to accompany the suffering of these people?
What steps have we taken in my country to prevent new injustice? Did we work to be consistent in our actions? Were we consistent? In my diocese, have I done what is possible to bring justice and healing to victims and those who suffer with them? Have I neglected what is important?
- After sitting with those soul-searching questions for a few moments, the congregation moved into a “confession of faults,” in which a leader confessed to a list of sins and failings on behalf of the whole assembly. After each confession, the entire assembly replied with “Kyrie, eleison” (Lord, have mercy). Here is what they prayed:
Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we are sinful human beings.
We confess that bishops, priests, deacons, and religious in the Church have done violence to children and youth, and
that we have failed to protect those who most needed our care.
We confess that we have shielded the guilty and have silenced those who have been harmed.
We confess that we have not acknowledge the suffering of many victims, nor have we offered help when it was needed.
We confess that often we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities.
We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done and failed to do.
Lord Jesus, we ask for your mercy on us sinners. We ask forgiveness for our sins. We ask for the grace to overcome injustice and to practice justice for the people entrusted to our care.
Even on a computer screen, it was a beautiful and moving service. (Liturgy is definitely one of the things Catholics do best!) Most importantly, the prayer provided a perfect opportunity for God to work in the hearts of all those gathered. I can only pray that all the participants approached this liturgy with a heart open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and that they will be pondering these challenging questions for a long time to come.
Sunday, February 24
10.30 Concluding Address by Pope Francis (Text)
Press Briefing (Video)
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.
Final Press Briefing
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
If you made it all the way to the end of this post - Congratulations! I know this was a LOT of information, but hopefully taking the time to read through this summary 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!
Now, what shall we do next?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
- Proverbs 3:5-6