Understanding why the Synod of Bishops blinked on 'zero tolerance'

Understanding why the Synod of Bishops blinked on ‘zero tolerance’

Understanding why the Synod of Bishops blinked on ‘zero tolerance’

A view of St. Peter's Basilica as Pope Francis celebrates a Mass for the closing of the synod of bishops at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini.)

For Americans and Catholics from other places scarred by clerical sexual abuse scandals, it's almost incomprehensible that a global summit of bishops could pull back from endorsing a policy of "zero tolerance."

News Analysis

ROME – If you’re an American Catholic, or an Australian, Irish, German, Chilean, or from pretty much anyplace else scarred by clerical sexual abuse scandals, news that a global summit of Catholic bishops in 2018 could walk up to the brink of endorsing a “zero tolerance” policy, only to pull back at the last minute, may seem almost incomprehensible.

One key to understanding how it happened is grasping that many Catholic bishops don’t hail from such places – actually, a strong majority don’t – and they bring widely differing perspectives and sensitivities to the table.

Here’s the tick-tock of how we got here.

The Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment opened against the backdrop of a tumultuous series of new chapters in the abuse saga, including the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report; the resignation of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; a controversy in Australia over eroding the seal of the confessional; laicizations, bishops’ resignations and fresh revelations in Chile; and, of course, the infamous letter from Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accusing Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick and covering it up.

Two weeks before the synod opened, the Vatican announced that Francis would summon presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world to Rome to discuss child protection Feb. 21-24.

From day one, it seemed clear the synod wouldn’t duck and hide from what had happened. One of the most dramatic early moments came when Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia directly addressed the 36 young people who joined the bishops, apologizing for the failures of Church leadership.

Fisher confessed the “failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe” as well as the “damage thus done to the Church’s credibility and to your trust.”

He drew sustained applause, and he was joined by several other prelates who engaged the issue both in floor speeches and in small group discussions. It seemed there was momentum towards a strong statement from the body.

Flash forward to Tuesday, Oct. 23, when synod participants were presented with a draft version of the final document they would vote on Saturday, Oct. 27. It contained five paragraphs on the abuse crisis, almost 700 words in all, including these key points:

  • “Many voices were raised to express pain and shame for these abuses and the incapacity to give adequate responses.”
  • “Abuses, in all their forms, represent today the principal obstacle to the exercise of mission.”
  • “Behind the spreading of a culture of abuse there’s a spiritual void that has to be faced with a decisive conversion of heart, mind and pastoral practices. Unfortunately, the Church has ended up in some ways assuming a style of the exercise of power that marks the history of the world, made up of violence and damages to little ones and the vulnerable.”
  • Referring to acts of abuse and cover-up as “these crimes, sins and omissions.”
  • Confirming the policy of ‘zero tolerance.’

On Wednesday and Thursday, bishops reacted to the draft on the synod floor, eventually offering around 340 proposed revisions, additions and deletions. The section on abuse was one focus of the back-and-forth, with some prelates arguing that the draft gave too much attention to the scandals, which they styled as largely a Western phenomenon fairly remote from the concerns of other places.

On “zero tolerance,” some bishops complained that it’s a media buzzword meaning different things to different people, suggesting that it’s often repeated but unclear in terms of its precise implications. Further, they argued, it would be inappropriate to commit the synod to any precise policy ahead of the pope’s February summit on the issue.

(In some ways that’s a curious objection, given that Francis himself repeatedly has endorsed “zero tolerance,” saying for instance in 2017 that the Church “irrevocably and at all levels seeks to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against sexual abuse of minors.”)

Although those points came from several African and Asian prelates, it wasn’t just the developing world. Some of the Italians who played key roles in the synod, for instance, felt the same way.

When that input reached the 12-member drafting committee, made up of five members elected by the synod and seven appointed in one way or another by the pope, they responded. In the end, the final document contains only three paragraphs on abuse, less than 500 words total, and all the points above were either eliminated or modified. There’s no clear and direct apology, and no commitment to “zero tolerance.”

Speaking to Crux on Monday, Mexican Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, a member of that drafting committee, added a couple of other reasons for eliminating the reference to “zero tolerance.”

First, Aquiar Retes said, this was a synod on young people, which the Vatican defines as ranging from 18 to 30, while “zero tolerance” is a phrase that applies to the sexual abuse of minors. Second, he said, the document also refers to other forms of abuse, and “zero tolerance” doesn’t apply to all in precisely the same way.

RELATED: Drafter says ‘zero tolerance’ didn’t belong in a synod doc on young people

The redacted paragraphs easily passed during the final vote Saturday night, with the “yes” total on each in excess of 200 in every case and the “nos” barely breaking 30. That doesn’t mean, however, everybody’s delighted. Speaking on background, several bishops from countries affected by the crisis have told Crux they were deeply disappointed.

What to make of it?

It’s commonly said among people who’ve been around the block on the abuse scandals that it’s just a question of time until they erupt elsewhere. Some believe Italy will be the next shoe to drop, some Poland, some the Philippines, some a major African nation such as Nigeria, and others propose yet more possibilities. The common term is the assumption that the clock is ticking, because both human nature and ecclesiastical culture are pretty much the same everywhere.

That was the spirit of Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia, who told Crux on Sunday the final result illustrates that the anti-abuse effort remains, globally speaking, a work in progress.

“Certain parts of the Church in the world are [just] coming to understand what it means to take a position of zero tolerance, and the synod is a reflection of the Church throughout the world,” he said.

RELATED: Aussie prelate says synod shows anti-abuse push still a ‘work in progress’

Yet many prelates from outside the West – and, to be frank, even some within it – just don’t buy that. They think “the crisis,” in the sense of media pressure, lawsuits, public protest and so on, is a product of certain cultures, and devoting too much global time and energy to it is ill-advised. Many also resent the way the scandals obscure other, more positive narratives about the Church.

That may not quite add up to “denial,” but it is a clear contrast in one’s sense of priorities and urgency, and in some ways it’s as relevant in Church life in 2018 as it was in 2002, when the abuse crisis first erupted in the United States and the “zero tolerance” policy was born.

Perhaps another verdict on the 2018 synod, therefore is this: Maybe the only thing that’ll ever really change the calculus is if the reformers are right, and the crisis is destined to blow up one place after another where it hasn’t yet hit.

Otherwise, it’s tough to imagine, in the wake of watching 260 bishops from around the world blink on “zero tolerance,” what else might do the trick.

Latest Stories