From 21 through 24 February, Pope Francis met with leaders of all Catholic national conference presidents and leaders of men’s and women’s religious orders in an effort to face down and deal with the evil of clergy sexual abuse of minors and in particular the cover-up of those crimes by bishops.
My take, obviously, is “from the sidelines.” I am limited to what I’ve read (which includes many of the speeches given to the prelates—some of them recorded and able to be viewed—more on that later). I have a few thoughts on the process and what I hope will be the results (which advocates for victims, rightfully, demand to be concrete—Pope Francis’ word).
Many—too many—of the initial speeches were couched in language that could fairly be described as “oratorical” and “ecclesial.” That is to say, they sounded good while saying little. Frankly, they were tedious to read. They were loaded with what we have come to expect as the standard lingo of “I’m really sorry—it’ll never happen again: I promise!” that parents hear often enough from their kids. Sadly, this analogy doesn’t really limp.
Cardinal Cupich had a concrete suggestion (one evidently forestalled by the pope’s ban on decision-making at the US bishops’ meeting November) to put metropolitan bishops (that is, archbishops formally heads of provinces, like Mobile with Birmingham, Biloxi, and Jackson) in charge of the discipline of accused bishops. This is fine so far as it goes, but the Vatican would still have to approve the standards by which the judgments would be made, and it would have to have a protocol for the cases when a metropolitan bishop himself would be the accused. This could happen, and if so it would be an example of proper “subsidiarity”—letting local churches handle issues (so long as they are in keeping with standards of the universal Church). This kind of “synodality” has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’ papacy. In formal theory, only the pope can discipline bishops, but he can delegate. Let’s get it into practice, if not with this suggestion, then with something like it. The Dallas Charter has set the standard for the principle—we need to expand it, if we want to take seriously the three overall themes of this summit: accountability, responsibility, transparency. NOTHING destroys confidence in this than the admission during the summit by German Cardinal Marx that documents about abuse and cover-up were destroyed in the Vatican in years past.
Another recommendation was the formation of a Vatican commission to oversee and judge such cases. I can think of nothing more worthless than another bureaucratic structure that itself would be open to corruption (as, it seems, too much of the Curial offices today are).
Finally, at the end, presentations worth listening to were made: by Sr Veronica Openibo and Dr Valentina Alazraki. They were powerful, straightforward, and had no “churchy” language. They were the best and most important presentations of the whole time in Rome, without a doubt. Sr Veronica stated that we had come to a church culture that was one of “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency”; “disgraceful and scandalous.” And journalist Dr Valentina stated clearly: “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.” [Find their speeches on the Vatican website: www.vatican.va]
We pray that concrete (again, Pope Francis’ word) decisions will come soon from this summit. Accountability and transparency are hallmarks of morality. It’s sad that a special summit must be assembled to enforce what should have been a sine qua non from the beginning. His words at the closing of this summit were, honestly, more sociological than pastoral. But that can change, as St Paul would say, “…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Let’s not have to wait for the “last trumpet.”