ROME – Twice now, and with ascending levels of authority, we’ve been cautioned not to expect too much from the summit on clerical sexual abuse Pope Francis has called for Feb. 21-24 for the presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world.

First came the Vatican’s new editorial director, veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, who penned a Jan. 10 editorial complaining of media “hype” over the meeting, quipping that it’s being covered as if it were “halfway between a council and a conclave.”

Then on his way home from World Youth Day in Panama in late January, Francis waded into the fray during an in-flight news conference.

“Let me say that I’ve perceived expectations that are a little inflated,” he said. “We need to deflate those expectations.”

The pontiff ticked off how he sees the main points of the meeting:

  • To foster awareness of the “terrible suffering” experienced by an abused child.
  • To help bishops understand the procedures to follow in abuse cases.
  • To make sure that awareness of the problem and procedures arrives to “all the episcopal conferences.”

To some extent, these efforts to frame expectations are completely reasonable, because it is artificial to expect three days in Rome to change the world. Further, since so much of the action in the anti-abuse effort is local, success will rise or fall not on what happens here, but in the various places to which these bishops must return.

That said, it’s also terribly frustrating to survivors of abuse, to reformers who’ve invested their best efforts over decades, and to rank-and-file Catholics whose faith has been shaken, to hear they’re asking too much. Americans especially would have cause to be irked, since they’ve been aware of the sexual abuse crisis since the mid-1980s, they were promised it would be resolved in 2002, and it’s understandably incomprehensible to many of them that it’s still causing heartache seventeen years later.

To many well-intentioned people, playing down expectations can sound dangerously like denial, indifference, or – worst of all – connivance in cover-up. Thus the question presents itself: What is realistic to expect from February?

There’s much one could highlight, from insistence that all bishops’ conferences of the world must adopt anti-abuse guidelines to a serious discussion of how to deal with bishops who mismanage abuse complaints.

However, one point seems especially urgent in light of the last time a cross-section of bishops gathered in Rome, and it can be expressed in two words: “Zero tolerance.”

At the Synod of Bishops on youth last October, prelates from around the world walked up to the brink of affirming a zero tolerance policy on abuse but then pulled back at the last minute due to opposition from prelates from Asia and Africa as well as a number of Europeans, above all the Italians.

The ostensible reason was that it would be premature to make such a declaration ahead of the meeting on the subject the pope has called, but sotto voce it was clear that some prelates still regard zero tolerance as an overreaction, or, at best, a culturally appropriate solution in the Anglo-Saxon world but not in their backyards.

February thus looms as a perfect time for Francis to stipulate that zero tolerance is the global standard of the Catholic Church.

It’s important to recall what “zero tolerance” in this context means: It’s not just that the Church is intolerant of child abuse, but, more specifically, that Church personnel will be permanently removed from ministry – and, if they’re clerics, in most cases expelled from the clerical state – for even one substantiated charge of sexual abuse of a minor.

While that’s become standard practice in Western nations such as the United States, it’s still honored more in the breach than the observance in some other settings.

The well-known case of Joseph Palanivel Jeyapaul from Tamil Nadu state in India is instructive. Accused of molesting two 14-year-old girls while serving in Minnesota in 2004-2005, he fled the country and returned home. He was suspended by his Indian diocese in 2010 and arrested by Interpol in 2012, whereupon he was sent back to the U.S., pleaded guilty to molesting one of the girls, and served time in jail.

Yet when Jeyapaul returned to India, it took less than a year for him to be reinstated to active ministry by the Diocese of Ootacamund, after the local bishop petitioned the Vatican for authorization.

That, in a nutshell, is the sort of thing Francis could end in February. He could instruct the presidents of all bishops’ conferences to apply a uniform standard, which would be fully in keeping with his own repeated pledges of support for zero tolerance.

Just one example among many came in his August 2018 letter following the Pennsylvania grand jury report, where Francis wrote: “I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to … implement zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.”

Reasonable people likely would agree that expecting the pope to uphold his own public commitments hardly seems “inflated.”

In less than a month, we’ll find out whether Francis thinks so too.