ROME – Under any circumstances, the announcement in September that Pope Francis plans to convene a summit Feb. 21-24 for all the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world, along with the Vatican’s senior leadership, to discuss the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Church would have been big news.
After the Vatican invoked that summit in November in instructing the U.S. bishops to stand down in adopting new accountability measures, however, telling them they need to wait until after February, it was foreordained that American analysts will treat February like Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta – a high-stakes, history-making exercise.
Before expectations spiral completely out of control, however, it’s important to say this out loud: For all kinds of reasons, this is not going to be Yalta on sex abuse, and to hope that it will be is a fool’s errand.
Let’s lay out the reasons why, and then touch on what would actually count as success.
First of all, Yalta was a full week – Feb. 4-11, 1945. This meeting is going to be three brief days, and much of the time won’t be occupied by the titans of the earth sitting down at a table and hammering out a deal, but rather by listening to presentations from expert speakers. It’s more akin to an in-service weekend, in other words, than to high-level negotiations.
Second, and probably more relevant for our purposes, this meeting is not bringing together a homogenous group of bishops who are more or less on the same page in terms of the abuse crisis, who just need to hammer out the fine points of a common approach.
Instead, what you have is roughly one-third of the bishops of the world who’ve experienced the “crisis,” in the sense of media pressure, lawsuits, stiff financial settlements, high-profile prosecutions, advocacy groups and so on, and who grasp instinctively the need for the Church to adopt “best practices” in the anti-abuse fight.
Then you’ve got about two-thirds of the world’s bishops, many from developing nations in the global south, who’ve never experienced the “crisis” in that sense. Many are convinced that their cultures don’t harbor the problem to the same extent, and they resent the way that Western discussions of abuse scandals overshadow their own concerns and priorities. They question the need for their nations to make a priority out of something many of them regard as a geographically and culturally limited phenomenon.
Moreover, some of these bishops also suspect that efforts to impose universal responses to the abuse scandals are simply another chapter in Western colonialism, foisting American and European approaches on everyone else without stopping to think about whether they actually make sense in other cultural contexts.
Case in point: Since the beginning of the abuse crisis, there have been calls among reform groups and survivor advocacy groups for the pope to impose a “mandatory reporter” policy on the global church, according to which bishops would be obliged to report all charges of child sexual abuse to the police and civil authorities.
While that comes off as a “no-brainer” for Americans and Western Europeans, places where in broad strokes one can trust the integrity of the police, it strikes prelates in places such as China, or India, or the Middle East – places where the police are often under the control of forces actively hostile to the Church – as handing your enemies another tool with which to destroy you, not to mention feeding a potentially innocent cleric to the wolves.
Proof of this cleft came in last October’s Synod of Bishops, when the group of roughly 260 bishops from around the world walked up to the brink of endorsing a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual abuse only to pull back at the last minute, due mostly to opposition from bishops from the developing world, above all Africa and Asia.
As a result, it’s probably unrealistic to anticipate some bold new set of universal guidelines to result from the February summit. When participants and organizers say this is merely a beginning, they’re not exaggerating.
So, what is realistic to anticipate?
Well, for one thing, the meeting gives Francis a chance to deliver an unequivocal message that clerical sexual abuse is a universal problem, one that requires the participation of the Church at all levels to resolve.
Francis could also set an example by announcing concrete methods for building stronger systems of accountability, not just for the crime of sexual abuse but for the cover-up. Nothing gets the attention of bishops everywhere quite like a new way in which they could possibly lose their jobs.
Finally, Francis could also charge all these presidents of bishops’ conferences with making a point of meeting abuse survivors when they go home. As anyone who’s been involved in the anti-abuse push over the years will tell you, there simply is no substitute for spending time with victims in terms of getting a sense of the horror that being abused as a child by a member of the clergy represents.
The bishops will be hearing from survivors in Rome, but there’s nothing quite like encountering the victims in one’s own back yard.
So, bottom line: Almost by definition, Americans are likely to be frustrated with what may seem the scant results of the February meeting. Things will rise or fall with how nimble the U.S. bishops are about putting together a plan of action that coheres with the indications it provides after it’s over.
Given where the Church stands globally, that’s about all one can realistically hope – and the sad part is, that alone would represent real progress.