ROME – As the old saw goes, the first step towards solving any problem is recognizing that you have one. In that spirit, the fact that a leading Church reformer kicked off the Vatican’s “Super Bowl week” on the clergy abuse scandals by denouncing denial in all its forms may well be seen as promising.
“Silence is a no-go,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who earned a reputation as the Eliot Ness of the Catholic Church for his role as the Vatican’s top prosecutor for sex abuse crimes under Pope Benedict XVI, when he brought down Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ.
“Whether it’s criminal or malicious complicity, a code of silence, or denial – which is trauma in its primitive state – we need to move forward,” he said.
To that, one can only say “Amen.”
The question is whether a Feb. 21-24 summit convened by Pope Francis for 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world, as well as 15 heads of Eastern churches, 15 bishops from missionary territories, 14 members of the Roman Curia, 5 members of the council of cardinals that advises the pope, 12 heads of male religious orders and 10 from female religious orders, actually will lay that state of denial to rest.
Despite the Vatican’s best efforts to play down expectations for the summit, with Francis telling journalists on the way back from Panama in late January that expectations need to be “deflated,” this stretch of time in Rome has a sort of “Super Bowl week” feel. Hundreds of media outlets from around the world are on hand, every expert and pundit with a point of view on the abuse scandals is here, and bishops and their entourages from around the world are descending on the city.
(The U.S. bishops’ conference alone is fielding a small field army, including child protection experts, canon lawyers, and communications personnel.)
Francis himself is scheduled to deliver two addresses, opening and closing the summit, and there will be 11 speeches in total. Any three-day event in which the pope speaks publicly twice is not, needless to say, business as usual.
Among the other speakers are Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotà in Colombia, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai in India, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich in Germany, and Cupich. On any rundown of A-listers in this papacy, all those names would figure prominently.
A Monday news conference at the Vatican certainly didn’t feel like a low-intensity, “nothing to see here” exercise. The lineup amounted to a cavalcade of stars, including Scicluna, former papal spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, and 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.
Also on Monday, the Vatican issued a digital press kit for the meeting in Italian, French, Spanish and English, which is the sort of thing generally reserved for huge events such as conclaves, consistories (when new cardinals are created) and synods of bishops.
If all this is playing things down, in other words, one shudders to think what a full-court press might look like. The great unknown is whether the big-time feel of the event will be matched by big-time substance at the end.
If the summit, as Scicluna suggested, aims to put an end to a climate of denial, at a minimum that would likely mean two things.
First, it would mean affirming a “zero tolerance” policy regarding the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, and not just in the generic sense of disapproving of such conduct, but the specific meaning of the term as developed in the United States and other parts of the Catholic world: Permanent removal from ministry for even one substantiated accusation.
Second, it would also mean “zero tolerance” for the cover-up of sexual abuse. Most observers would say that has to mean more than quietly accepting the resignations of bishops accused of dropping the ball – it would mean the same prosecutions under Church law, and the same stiff penalties such as defrocking, that abusers themselves now incur.
“My hope will be that people see this [summit] as a turning point,” Cupich said during Monday’s news conference.
In all honesty, everyone knows what a real turning point would look like, and it’s encapsulated in the two points above.
Right now, the Vatican appears to be doing everything in its power to convince the world this is a serious effort to come to terms with the abuse scandals. However, the Vatican’s new editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, recently said in a Crux interview that this isn’t a meeting of experts but of pastors, whose ultimate responsibility is to proclaim and live the Gospel.
In that spirit, a Gospel quote seems in order: “By their fruits you shall know them.” Ultimately, the test of the summit won’t be impressive speakers or the volume of background materials released to the press, but the outcomes it produces – and, to be sure, people will be watching.