Prepare to Be Disappointed: Thoughts about the Vatican Abuse Summit
Updated: Feb 22, 2019
(Update: For my Quick Takes on each day of the abuse summit, start reading here.)
If you have been following the unfolding clergy abuse crisis, you know that Pope Francis is hosting an unprecedented four-day summit in Rome this week, on the topic of “Protection of Minors in the Church.” The presidents of episcopal conferences from all around the world will be in attendance, along with the heads of religious congregations and other important church leaders. Journalists, photographers, and survivors’ groups from across the globe are all converging on Rome this week, waiting and watching to see what will happen at the meeting.
So, what should we expect?
Honestly, no one is quite sure. For those following closely, the past few months have been a gradual process of coming to understand what Pope Francis and the organizers have in mind with this gathering. After announcing the summit back in September, the Vatican has been slowly releasing information about the format and content of the meeting. In November came a list of organizers and participants. In December, we were shown a brief letter sent to participants that urged them to meet with abuse survivors in their own regions in preparation for the summit. In January, the papal spokesman explained the goal of the meeting: “that all of the bishops clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors.”
Now, in these last few days before the meeting begins, we have been given a much clearer picture of the vision. The organizers hosted a press conference on Monday, offering more detail about the structure of the meeting. A well-organized and user-friendly website - www.pbc2019.org - was launched the same day. In a win for transparency, it was announced that portions of the conference will be recorded and posted on that official website. (I am definitely planning on reading and watching everything I can get my hands on, and I will try to share my observations and thoughts with you as quickly as possible.)
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been in a holding pattern since the November General Assembly, when Pope Francis asked them to hold off on implementing several proposals until after this summit. This was a frustrating delay, but many people in the United States have been hoping that the summit will become a turning point for the Church. Anything that gives us a little hope right now feels like a good thing.
However, I would suggest that if the Church does start to turn, it will likely be in a sluggish, gradual way, like a giant cruise ship changing direction. The boat pivots so slowly that you hardly notice it happening. For a long time, it looks like you’re still going in the same direction, but if you pay attention, you’ll see that things have shifted, just a little, and eventually, you’re going to end up somewhere different. As much as we would like the Church to behave like a little speedboat, making a 90 degree turn and zipping off in the right direction, that’s just not how the Catholic Church works. It may be frustrating, but that's the reality. In this enormous, diverse, ancient Church, change comes slowly. Very, very, slowly.
Also, when following the summit, I think it’s important for American Catholics (myself included) to remember that the world does not revolve around the United States. Americans are understandably impatient for answers to our questions, changes to our procedures, and accountability for our bishops. But the Pope did not gather Catholic leaders from all over the world to talk about the problems of just one country.
Yes, the situation is bad in the United States, and we do have a right to demand change. But things are worse in other parts of the world, where the reality of clergy sex abuse is still relatively hidden, where there are no safeguards in place and no systems for reporting, where the Church has limited resources to tackle this problem. In many countries, the local church is like the church in the United States before 2002, when sexual abuse was talked about only in whispers and bishops could still pretend it wasn’t happening. As much as we have struggled in our handling of this problem, the U.S. is still ahead of the curve, providing an example of policies and procedures that can be imitated in countries that have almost no safeguards in place.
From the various statements coming out of the Vatican, it sounds to me like the primary focus of this summit is getting all the bishops and other participants onto the same page, so that church leaders all over the world recognize the seriousness of the problem of clergy sexual abuse and their responsibility to address it. Given that focus, I would be surprised if the meeting gives substantial guidance on the particular issues and problems we are experiencing today in the United States.
In a press conference at the end of January, Pope Francis himself even acknowledged the unrealistic hopes for this meeting, saying “I’ve perceived a bit of an inflated expectation… We need to deflate the expectations.” So, if we are expecting clear and immediate results that completely transform the response in the United States, I think we should prepare to be disappointed.
However, if we can approach this summit for what it is - one small positive step in a long, long journey - perhaps in the end, we will see that the Church has started to turn and we are heading, slowly but surely, in a new direction.
Here are a few opinion pieces you might like to read for further reflection:
If you'd like to dig a little deeper, I would encourage you to browse through the official website for the summit, which includes information about the presenters and schedules, as well as lots of great articles, videos, and other resources:
Please join me in praying for all those who are gathered for the summit,
as well as for the abuse survivors who have come to Rome to make their voices heard.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit.