February abuse summit will have to navigate waters of a global church

February abuse summit will have to navigate waters of a global church

February abuse summit will have to navigate waters of a global church

A nun with a South African flag protects herself from the sun at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima Friday, May 12 2017, in Fatima, Portugal as she waits for the arrival of Pope Francis. (Credit: AP Photo/Paulo Duarte.)

A major challenge the planning committee for Pope Francis's Feb. 21-24 summit on sex abuse will face is taking account of differing instincts inside a global Church.

News Analysis

DENVER – On Friday, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, was among the prelates tapped by Pope Francis to organize his Feb. 21-24 summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world to tackle the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism for decades.

In comments to Crux later in the day (collected by our relentless Mumbai correspondent, Nirmala Carvalho), Gracias said he sees the organizing panel as a sign that Francis “is taking the protection of minors very seriously.”

Gracias made another point that’s worth thinking about. Speaking of the need for a global strategy, he said of the planning group, “I am very pleased with the composition of the group as it is according to the needs of every continent. It is tailored to the needs of the lay faithful of every place.”

The thing is, looking at the composition of the group, that’s a stretch.

The four-person organizing committee includes:

  • Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.
  • Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading prosecutor on child abuse and who has played an instrumental role in cleaning up the abuse scandals in both Mexico and Chile.
  • German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and head of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
  • Gracias, who also serves on Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisors.

In addition to the four prelates, Francis also tapped two Italians, Dr. Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary for the life section of the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life, and Dr. Linda Ghisoni, undersecretary for the lay section of the same department, to help in the preparation work.

According to the Vatican statement, other members of the commission for minors and a number of victims of clerical abuse will also help in the preparatory process, but they have not yet been named.

In all, that’s an American and four Europeans, with Gracias the only figure who’s not from the West. There’s no prelate or adviser from Africa, from Latin America, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, or anywhere else, who’s presently part of the planning process.

Granted, veteran leaders in the anti-abuse fight such as Scicluna and Zollner have traveled relentlessly for years to press the cause and have developed a keen understanding of the broad global situation. Both, along with Cupich, emphasized the need for a global approach in their statements on Friday.

Nevertheless, at first glance it’s striking how “Western” the group is.

First, some basic math: There are roughly 1.3 billion Catholics in the world today, two-thirds of whom live in the southern hemisphere, and by mid-century that share will be about three-quarters. It’s not just that the demographic future of Catholicism lies outside the West; its present is there too.

The sexual abuse crisis is a classic case in point, and those dynamics played out with crystal clarity during the October Synod of Bishops on young people in Rome, where a body of 260 bishops from around the world walked up to the brink of issuing an explicit apology for the abuse scandals and pledging support for a “zero tolerance” policy, then pulled back at the last minute due in part to contrasting instincts from different parts of the world.

Try thinking about this for a minute through the eyes of an African prelate, struggling to lead an impoverished and violence-scarred diocese.

Accustomed to decades of neglect punctuated by occasional bouts of sensationalism from the Western media, many African prelates are inclined to skepticism about media reports of an abuse “crisis.” Further, they’ve never experienced the abuse crisis themselves, in the sense that Westerners know it – unrelenting press coverage, strong public protest, lawsuits that compel further disclosures, low morale among their clergy and a lack of social esteem for the priesthood, and on and on.

On the other hand, they watch their clergy, religious and laity risking their lives every day to bring comfort, both spiritual and material, to suffering peoples, and they wonder why the Church needs to talk so much about what it got wrong when there’s also a great deal going right.

For them,  the very concept of “child protection” is much larger, including sexual abuse but also slavery, child soldiers, trafficking, child marriage, and much else.

Gracias himself acknowledged being one of those reluctant prelates at the October synod, telling Crux in an Oct. 26 interview: “You make such a big fuss about sexual abuse, and making it like the number one issue? To be fair to the synod, you can’t say that’s the number one thing.”

It was precisely that difference in outlook that produced the watered-down final product at the October synod – a result that many American Catholics, or Germans, or Irish, or Australians, undoubtedly found surreal given all the water under their bridges.

(Non-Western bishops urging restraint were buoyed by the Italians, who likewise have never faced the abuse “crisis” in its full-blown sense and can be skeptical of responses they see as overly sweeping.)

Teresa Kettelkamp, former head of the U.S. bishops’ office for child protection, then a staffer for the Pontifical Commission for Minors and now a member, spoke to Crux’s Elise Harris on Saturday about the challenges facing the February summit, and she emphasized precisely the global dimension.

“It’s a global Church,” she said. “I’m glad the U.S. bishops are addressing their problems, but for me it’s very frustrating that we’ve had this very good charter since 2002 and we still have problems. First of all, that tells you how deep-seeded this problem is. It’s an evil problem, but I think the pope is saying wait a minute, this is a global issue and I want us all on the same sheet of music.”

Francis himself has had an education in the global dimensions of the abuse crisis of late, dealing with massive scandals in Chile and meeting regularly with Chilean victims.

Gracias told Crux that the planning group has already been in touch by phone and email, and that they’ll have their first face-to-face meeting, in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence where Pope Francis lives, around Dec. 10 or 11.

Quite obviously, they’ll have a lot to talk about – beginning with navigating the global waters of a universal church.

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