Four take-aways from the pope's summit on clerical sexual abuse

Four take-aways from the pope’s summit on clerical sexual abuse

Four take-aways from the pope’s summit on clerical sexual abuse

Pope Francis attends a penitential liturgy at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. The pontiff is hosting a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up. (Credit: Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP.)

One take-away from the the pope's Feb. 21-24 summit on clerical abuse is that global perspective is key, while another is that activist groups on the issue were left cold.

News Analysis

ROME – Pope Francis’s keenly-anticipated Feb. 21-24 summit on clerical sexual abuse wrapped up Sunday, and it ended much the way it began: Offering reasons for hope, for those inclined in that direction, but also ample basis for skepticism for anyone disposed to distrust assurances from ecclesiastical officialdom.

The summit provided an amplifier for the rhetoric of reform, but relatively little in terms of concrete new policies or law. If anything, there’s actually some basis to suspect division and ambiguity about certain key accountability measures, such as defrocking as the more-or-less standard punishment for abuser priests and releasing the names of clergy facing credible accusations of abuse.

On Sunday, the Vatican vowed new anti-abuse guidelines for the Vatican City State, a handbook outlining the procedures to follow in abuse cases, and new task forces to help bishops’ conferences and dioceses that lack the resources to implement anti-abuse protocols on their own. It also announced that on Monday, summit organizers will meet with Vatican officials to discuss next steps.

In the immediate wake of the summit, here are a few take-aways that seem supported by the experience of the last four days.

Global perspective is key

Approaching this event as an American or a Western European was, from the very beginning, arguably destined to be an exercise in frustration. What’s become conventional wisdom in those parts of the world, where the abuse scandals have been a fact of Catholic life for decades, remains novel and sometimes almost incomprehensible elsewhere.

For Americans and most Western Europeans (with the glaring exception, perhaps, of the pope’s backyard in Italy), to hear senior Church officials acknowledge openly that clerical abuse exists and must be addressed can sound like defusing the bomb long after it’s gone off.

For Africans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, many Latin Americans and most Catholics from the Middle East, however, such explicit references aren’t standard fare, and arguably may have the effect of galvanizing action in places which to date have been mired in denial and neglect.

Whether this summit was a “success,” in other words, depends to some extent on your GPS coordinates. Above all else, Francis probably called this meeting to establish a uniform global baseline in terms of the Church’s understanding of clerical abuse, and measured by that admittedly limited standard, it may well have produced the desired result.

Ending with a whimper, not a bang

Francis opened the summit on Thursday with a stirring talk declaring that the People of God were expecting “concrete, effective measures” to combat clerical abuse, not the repetition of “simple and predictable condemnations.” That language evoked a sense of resolve and purpose that was broadly welcomed.

The pope’s verbiage at the end of the meeting, on the other hand, met with a far more mixed reaction.

On the one hand, the pope exuded understanding, saying that “in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons,” and that “it is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.”

Yet Francis also rolled out the by-now familiar argument that child sexual abuse is not restricted to the Catholic Church, that most abuse occurs in the family, and that the broader society also needs to get its own house in order.

All those points are perfectly valid, but in context they couldn’t help but strike many observers as a form of deflection. After all, a pope can’t directly shape what happens in families or secular society, but he certainly can exercise control over the vicissitudes of the Church he leads.

Overall, reform forces inside and outside the Church weren’t exactly thrilled.

“If the powerful testimonies of the past week moved the needle in the right direction,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the watchdog group Bishop Accountability, on Sunday, “the pope today moved it back.”

“Pope Francis’s talk today was a stunning letdown, a catastrophic misreading of the grief and outrage of the faithful,” she said.

Survivors as protagonists

Over the last four days, survivors of clerical abuse and their advocacy organizations played a significant role in shaping the narrative of the summit. In part that’s because they ran a fairly sophisticated media operation, but in part, too, it’s because they had something that’s almost irresistible to curious reporters: Insider access.

Before and during the summit, several were moving in and out of Vatican offices, meeting senior personnel and acquiring important information about where things stand. By now, there’s an informal but widely observed policy of giving virtually all survivors who want one a hearing.

As recently as a decade ago, abuse survivors struggled to get meetings with Vatican potentates, and they acquired most of their information about the goings-on in Rome from reporters. Now, they’re often the ones briefing reporters about what’s happening in various Vatican departments.

For sure, getting in the door isn’t the whole ballgame. Part of what transpired in these meetings, in fact, is that survivors were turned down when they asked for material such as the case files of convicted priests, or the texts of policies benignly described as “internal” (read: “secret”).

Yet by Vatican standards, the mere fact that survivors can even get a hearing is a striking novelty, the significance of which probably shouldn’t be played down.

Activist groups unhappy

Whatever access survivors may have enjoyed, however, didn’t mean their most prominent activists were prepared to choke back criticism. On the contrary, as the summit ended the declarations of dissatisfaction were loud and clear.

The Italian group Rete L’abuso, the country’s lone network for abuse survivors, pulled no punches, dispatching a statement on Sunday with the headline, “Credibility zero.”

“The summit called by Pope Francis ended with a hole in the water,” it said, using an Italian expression to mean “useless” and ” futile.”

“It responded to the world with a banality and intellectual misery that humiliates victims and offends Catholics,” it said.

Moreover, the statement bluntly called Francis a “liar”.

“Pope Francis has transformed his media campaign of ‘zero tolerance’,” with the clarity offered today, into a Church with ‘zero credibility’ and ‘zero will.’ Thanks for that clarity, for which we’re grateful,” that statement said.

Bishop Accountability was not quite as fiery in its verbiage, but equally negative in its judgment.

“The bishops of the world will scrutinize the papal talk, trying to discern if they must change or risk losing their jobs. They’ll be reassured,” their statement said.

“Nothing in either the pope’s remarks or [a Vatican] list of ‘concrete initiatives’ suggests that complicit church managers will be laicized, fired or demoted,” Bishop Accountability said. “Nothing we heard today suggests that a universal ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy for either abusers or enablers is even being considered.”

“The hope for change shifts back to the secular sphere,” the statement said. “Alarmed by the summit’s failure to produce reform, survivors, activists and civil authorities will be galvanized.”

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