ROME – After heartfelt attempts to play down its importance, a summit of Catholic bishops will begin Thursday aiming to tackle the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, something the Church has grappled with for decades.
Despite Pope Francis’s call in January to “deflate” expectations, the week opened with a Vatican media operation going at full tilt, with an all-star press conference on Monday and even a tweet from the pontiff to his over 40 million followers.
A website was launched to provide further information, including the 11 speeches that will be delivered Feb. 21-24. They will be livestreamed, unthinkable for other Vatican gatherings.
Lay experts from all over the world, including American Kim Daniels, former spokeswoman of the United States bishops’ conference and Spanish layman Yago de la Cierva, member of Opus Dei and lead organizer of World Youth Day Madrid 2011, have been tapped to lend a hand. Former papal spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi and Canadian Father Thomas Rosica, a long-time Vatican communications aide are also participating.
That ferment could suggest the Vatican sees what’s happening this week primarily as a PR challenge. They might do well to recall a famous saying in crisis management, which goes: “You have a communications problem because you have a real problem.”
In all honesty, there’s only a handful of countries around the world where one can say the Church has made big strides to try to guarantee children are safe. One of those countries is the U.S., where statistics show that new cases have been significantly reduced after a series of measures adopted in 2002, when the crisis exploded in Boston.
Yet the scandal of Theodore McCarrick, once a leading cardinal and, as of last week, a man who’s been kicked out of the priesthood, shows that even in America there’s much to be done. Both in Rome and in the U.S., who knew what, when and why they chose to do nothing, remain unanswered questions.
Outside of the U.S., Canada, Australia and Ireland, new cases show that the Catholic [Universal] Church continues to stumble when it comes to taking action.
Chile, perhaps the greatest example of what shouldn’t be done, gave us a peak into a mishandled case last year when the Vatican announced Francis had finally removed Cristián Precht from the clerical state.
Once a national hero for his defense of human rights during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, he was suspended from ministry for five years in 2012 when he was found guilty of abuse.
Precht went back to ministry in 2017, but when new allegations against him surfaced last year, another canonical process began.
After the Vatican found Precht guilty in 2012, it was up to the archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, to apply a sanction. Father Jaime Ortiz de Lezcano, the diocesan judicial vicar, recommended Precht receive a life sentence that Ezzati decided to temporarily suspend.
Of the 34 Chilean bishops, seven had their resignations accepted by the pope last year, and eight have been subpoenaed, either on charges of sexual abuse or cover-up. Two other bishops, who had been retired for some years, were removed from the clerical state.
There are 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences participating in the summit. Though it’s virtually impossible to zoom into each, studies tell us that anywhere between 3 to 7 percent of priests are part of the problem.
It’s a safe bet to say that there are other Prechts out there still waiting to be found.
The composition of the communications team for the meeting, however, gives one reason for hope.
Kim Daniels, a mother of six, delivered a lecture at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia earlier in the month, and presumably she’s brought those attitudes to Rome.
“Every week another shoe seems to drop: We hear of another person – a flesh and-blood person, someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend – who has suffered abuse at the hands of a priest. We hear another story of cover-up or malfeasance or failure of leadership on the part of a bishop.”
“We hear more talk from everyone, but see little action from anyone,” she said. “Church leaders have hurt real people, and real reform is necessary.”
Expectations differ in the U.S. and Chile, as Chileans are waiting to see what the Vatican will do with the bishops who had their resignation accepted well before they turned 75, while McCarrick’s victims know he’s out of the priesthood.
Yet if nothing else, according to Francis, the summit will serve as a guarantee that no Church official will ever be able to say, “I didn’t know what to do.”