ROME – Yesterday I described this as “Super Bowl week” in the Vatican, in the sense that the pope’s keenly-anticipated summit on the clerical sexual abuse scandals opening Thursday has drawn media, activists and onlookers from all over the world to the Eternal City, creating energy and anticipation leading up to the big event.
Here’s a rundown of some of the sights and sounds of this week in Rome on Tuesday, which capture only a random sampling of everything that’s on offer this week.
Counter-altar at the Foreign Press Club
Veteran Italian journalist Maria Antonietta Calabrò dispatched a tweet Tuesday morning saying on that day, Rome’s Foreign Press Club became a “counter-altar” to the Vatican Press Office and its spin operation around the pope’s summit.
Two different events took place at the Foreign Press Club, both featuring dissident voices: A morning news conference staged by Bishop Accountability, a watchdog group on the clerical abuse scandals, and an afternoon event by Voices of the Faith, another activist group promoting the empowerment of women within the Catholic Church.
At the Bishop Accountability event, Ann Barrett Doyle, the group’s director, appeared with Phil Saviano, an abuse survivor who worked with the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team.
The two raised questions about prelates taking part in the pope’s summit, asserting that they include “an archbishop who estimates that only one percent of his country’s priests have abused children, the head of a vast archdiocese who claims to have dealt with only one abusive priest, a cardinal who runs an archdiocese in the world’s largest Catholic country but has never spoken publicly about the crisis, and a cardinal who has kept in ministry at least three accused priests.”
The suggestion, obviously, was that some of the key personalities taking part have a mixed record, casting doubt on the results they may generate.
As for the Voices of Faith event, its spirit was summed up by Zuzanna Filsowska of Poland, the group’s General Manager.
“Even with the best intentions, this closed group is unable to hear the perspectives of those who remain silent and excluded, in this case women,” she said.
Barbara Dorris, former executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), offered the dour assessment that the summit opening Thursday is “just for show,” and that Pope Francis is deliberately “choosing not to act” on holding bishops who’ve covered up for sexual abuse accountable.
Only criminal prosecutions and pressure from survivors, Dorris opined, and not ecclesiastical assemblies, will produce real change.
Silent protest on homosexuality
On the other end of the spectrum, a silent rally was staged on Tuesday in Rome’s Piazza San Silvestro to protest what organizers called the Vatican’s “silent policy on the issue of homosexuality.”
In addition to standing mute, participants also recited the rosary or read classics of Catholic doctrine and spirituality, reflecting their largely conservative and traditional bent.
“As children of the Church Militant, we are here to profess publicly our Catholic faith, but also to break down the wall of silence: the sepulchral silence of the Pastors of the Church in the face of an unprecedented doctrinal and moral crisis,” read a flyer distributed at the event.
The pope’s anti-abuse summit, according to the flyer, represents an opportunity to “confront not only the theme of sexual abuse of minors but also the theme of moral corruption, which includes every violation of divine and natural law, beginning with the terrible plague of homosexuality.”
There were roughly 100 people in attendance at the silent protest, and their pointed request was for the bishops on hand for Francis’s summit to “dare to speak the truth to the Holy Father.”
Religious proclaim abuse wrong “anytime, anywhere”
Moving from the outside of the summit to the inside, the superiors of both men’s and women’s religious orders released a statement Tuesday decrying the abuse of children in all forms.
“In our work as religious, we come across many situations where children are abused, neglected, maltreated and unwanted. We see child soldiers; the trafficking of minors; the sexual abuse of minors; the physical and emotional abuse of minors. They cry out to us,” the superiors wrote.
The document came from the Union of Superiors General, the main association of superiors of men’s orders, and the International Union of Superiors General, an umbrella group for leaders of women’s orders.
Arguably the single most important line from the statement was the following: “The abuse of children is wrong anywhere and anytime: this point is not negotiable.”
Though the superiors didn’t quite say so out loud, that assertion clearly seemed intended to refute the still oft-heard claim that the sexual abuse crisis is largely a “Western” or even “American” problem, one which isn’t really an issue in other parts of the world.
Interestingly, although the statement came from two organizations of religious orders with their own distribution channels for press releases, it was circulated Tuesday by the Vatican Press Office – in part, perhaps, because male and female superiors are part of the assembly opening on Thursday.
Victim meeting the pope
The Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano reported on Tuesday that a prominent Italian victim of clerical abuse and the founder of the country’s only network of abuse survivors, Francesco Zanardi, will have a private meeting with Pope Francis on Wednesday.
Zanardi has reported being raped by a priest in 1981, at the age of 13, and says the abuse went on for three years. He said he developed a drug habit in his teenage years as a result of his experiences, and when he finally came forward in 2010, he said, his partner abandoned him.
“I’m emotional,” Zanardi said. “We’ll find ourselves in front of each other, looking each other in the eye, and we can finally talk.”
Zanardi told a reporter that he’s sought a meeting with the pope for years, “uselessly,” but this time it was the Vatican that reached out to him. He speculated that it may have something to do with a recent report by a UN committee faulting Italy for not prosecuting Catholic clergy for sexual abuse more aggressively.
Zanardi said he planned to lay a few requests before the pope, including: obliging bishops to report charges of sexual abuse against their clergy in all countries, and also full cooperation with civil and criminal investigations.
“The Church punishes those who violate the sixth commandment, meaning sins against God,” Zanardi said. “But it’s also necessary to punish the offense against raped children.”