ROME — If the global clergy sex abuse crisis was once thought of as an “American” problem, Pope Francis’s efforts to get the global Church to take the issue seriously may now be drawing on American solutions.
Seventeen years ago, 2002 marked a turning point for the U.S. clergy abuse crisis. Bishops tangled with Rome to amend canon law and enact a “one-strike and you’re out” policy for abusive priests – something which, at the time, was criticized in Rome and elsewhere as a distortion of Church law and a typically American form of “cowboy justice.”
Yet as bishops gathered around the world in Rome this week for an anti-abuse summit convened by Francis, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Ireland told reporters he believed the universal Church was moving “much closer” to enacting that American innovation as a global policy.
In an interview with Crux on Saturday, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, offered a similar conclusion.
“The Church is moving toward zero tolerance,” he said, but “it isn’t quite there yet.”
Further, the case of former cardinal and priest Theodore McCarrick, who rose through the ranks of power in the U.S. and within the Vatican, while abusing both minors and seminarians, has now prompted a global conversation in the Catholic Church on the need for oversight of the Church’s bishops.
On Friday, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and one of the members of the summit’s organizing committee, called for “new legal structures of accountability” for bishops who abuse or are negligent in handling cases of abuse.
His proposal would charge the metropolitan archbishop with the responsibility for overseeing investigations into bishops accused of abuse in conjunction with a local review board. Cupich later added that it’s a model that would allow a more local response and follow-up with abuse survivors.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said that the 2002 Dallas charter on the protection of children made “a huge difference” in the way the Church responds to sexual abuse.
However, he added that “there’s a serious lacuna that needs to be addressed urgently,” which is episcopal responsibility.
DiNardo told Crux he expects new measures for bishops’ accountability to be enacted by the U.S. bishops when they meet in June for their bi-annual session.
Both O’Malley and Cupich highlighted the presence and testimonials of abuse survivors in Rome this week, whose presence was inescapable and largely shaped the narrative around the summit.
Phil Saviano, an abuse survivor who worked with the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team to expose decades of abuse in the archdiocese of Boston, and who participated in a meeting with survivors and the summit organizing committee, lobbied for the Vatican to become more transparent and not hide behind the defense of “pontifical secrecy” and use canon law not to disclose what the Church cases of abuse.
Should the Vatican take such a step, it would “catch the attention of Catholics around the world who are already leaving a sinking ship and maybe help them hang on longer,” he told Crux Wednesday.
By the close of the summit, the idea of “pontifical secrecy” had effectively gone out the window with Cupich and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, both key papal allies, advocating disclosure and transparency.
Among the other American flavorings of the summit were the large herds of reporters from around the world, including every major American outlet, who descended on Rome for the Vatican’s most-covered event since the conclave that elected Francis in 2013.
Throughout the week, multiple references were made to Spotlight, which won the 2016 Oscar for best film, which chronicled the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of abuse cover-up. On Saturday, veteran Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki from Mexico was given a prime time spot at the summit where she warned bishops that journalists will be their “worst enemies” if they continue to cover-up abuse.
As the three representatives from the U.S. return home this week, DiNardo said the USCCB’s administrative committee will “work like mad” to modify its proposed protocols for bishop accountability, all of which were triggered by the McCarrick case.
Ahead of the summit’s start, the Vatican announced that Francis had taken the historic move to laicize the former cardinal archbishop of Washington, however the much anticipated report pledged by the Holy See to detail a full account of who knew what and when about McCarrick has yet to be released.
DiNardo told Crux that he still has to be informed as to when that information may be forthcoming, and earlier in the week O’Malley said that knowing what happened is “very important.”
“The situation of Theodore McCarrick is a very sad moment in history, a very shameful moment,” said Cupich — and as the summit concludes, with its stated intent of moving to “concrete solutions,” it seems a full accounting of that history remains a part of its follow-up.