We are a little more than a month since the conclusion of the Vatican’s summit on combating the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the history of covering up such abuse. What can we conclude about the meeting and about the trajectory for the Church, here in the U.S. and abroad?
It is deeply regrettable that so many ecclesial activists on both the left and the right have denounced the summit for what they perceive as failures. On the right, that the summit did not identify homosexuality as a principal cause of sex abuse has been seen as the major failing, even though there is no credible study indicating that homosexuality is in any way an indicator for abuse. Most sexual abuse of children happens in families, not churches, and involves girls as well as boys. Only outside the home, is most abuse same-sex, and most studies conclude that this correlation is because abuse of a minor is a crime of opportunity, and the perpetrators have easier access to children of the same gender.
As David Gibson pointed out in this space in January, it has been especially frightful to see how conservative Catholic media, which never paid much attention to clergy sex abuse before, now has glommed onto the issue as a means of attacking Pope Francis. This is especially strange in the case of Theodore McCarrick, the ex-cardinal who was at the center of the dossier issued last summer by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. McCarrick has been promoted three times and then made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, not Pope Francis. McCarrick retired seven years before Francis was elected.
Criticism of the summit, and of Pope Francis’ handling of the issue more generally, from the Catholic left has been just as wrong-headed. Some have claimed the summit accomplished nothing, but if you talk to any of the participants, that is to say, the people who are in a position to accomplish something, they felt that real progress was made. When the pope calls everyone to Rome and clears his schedule to address the issue, bishops worldwide understand that this is a priority. Additionally, the content of the meeting was widely praised by the participants: the talks were powerful. The participation of women was notable and, hopefully, now normative.
There has also been an effort to hijack the issue of clergy sex abuse to address other issues that some partisans on the left want to see highlighted. Celibacy is not the problem, as our friends in the Southern Baptist Convention are discovering as they begin to grapple with the issue. Some blame patriarchy, but patriarchy gets blamed for the common cold these days.
So, if the partisans of both left and right are wrong, what are we to make of the current situation of the Church and its efforts to confront this problem? What did the summit achieve?
First, the leaders of the universal church recognized that listening to victims changes the focus. If you identify, first and foremost, with a fellow priest, who was a perpetrator, you tend see the crime of sex abuse as a sin against chastity. If you identify with the victim, you see that a sin against justice has occurred. Those bishops who have met regularly with victims have long understood this, but some bishops and some cultures have not. The role of victim-survivors in the summit was critical. Lest we forget, Pope John Paul II never met with victims of clergy sex abuse, not once.
Second, the day after the summit, the pope met with the heads of the different dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The curia is not known for transparency or accountability, which are the two most necessary qualities the Church needs if it is to succeed in confronting the culture that allowed, and even encouraged, the covering up of the abuse. Accountability and transparency were central focal points for the summit, and the pope will need to continue to push his closest aides to fashion protocols for handling allegations of episcopal malfeasance and to publish those protocols. If necessary, the pope must enact appropriate legislation. The curia has fine tuned the art of slowly killing initiatives over the past 500 years, and they cannot be permitted to kill these accountability measures. Only on paper is a pope all powerful. He must persuade the curia or they will kill the reforms.
Third, the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences went home with an explicit mandate: Develop culturally appropriate norms for confronting abuse and reporting it. Different countries have different legal regimes within which they operate. Sexuality is always deeply inculturated and so the context for abuse might be different. But, they must develop norms that must be approved by the Holy See. Here in the U.S., the development of additional norms will occupy the bishops at their June meeting.
As I have argued in my column at NCR, 2018 was not so much a sex abuse crisis as an ecclesiological crisis. The steps taken to protect children since 2002 have largely worked, but the reckoning by the hierarchy for their criminal covering up of abuse—that was allowed to slide. No more. Despite the critics, the summit at the Vatican was a large leap forward in confronting the hierarchic culture that permitted the cover up to continue. The reckoning will be postponed no longer.
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.