KEY WEST, Florida – Since last summer’s twin eruptions of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the scandals surrounding ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, many Catholics have found themselves wondering if anything’s truly changed in the Church vis-à-vis the clerical abuse scandals.
After decades of crisis and repeated vows of reform, they ask, is it possible the Church still doesn’t get it?
Over the last fortnight, a constellation of events spanning different continents and time zones has issued a reminder that the answer to that question is messy, complicated and classically Catholic – it’s both/and, yes and no. In other words, we’re probably living right now, as generations of Catholics before have on other fronts and in other circumstances, in both the best and the worst of times.
Those recent events which have helped tell the tale include:
- A Nov. 6-8 workshop on the abuse scandals in Latin America organized by CEPROME, an interdisciplinary center for child protection in the Pontifical University of Mexico.
- A Nov. 13 forum at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend featuring Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s point man on the clerical abuse issue.
- A Nov. 14-15 international conference on “Promoting Digital Child Dignity,” held at the Vatican under the auspices of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, as a follow-up to a 2017 summit on child protection in the digital realm held at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University.
Collectively, the three moments captured both the remarkable progress that’s been made in the fight against child abuse in the Church, as well as several gaping holes in that response and the mammoth amount of work left to be done.
At the Latin American summit in Mexico City, Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Bogota and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, did not pull any punches.
“We’re in 2019, and in some places and spaces of our Church, nothing is happening,” Alí told the assembly.
Alí complained that while the gringos up north, referring to North America and Europe, have adopted a series of reform measures, “in Latin America, there has been nothing … nothing has happened after so many years.”
Though that’s a bit overstated – both Mexico and Chile, for instance, have been hard-hit by abuse scandals, and have adopted a series of corrective measures – nevertheless, it was a jarring reminder of the global imbalance in Catholicism in terms of how aggressively local churches have moved.
It’s also a reminder, of course, that Catholicism still seems to be struggling to defuse the bomb before it goes off. Generally, the pattern seems to be that reform only follows scandal, never precedes it.
On the other hand, the consensus star of the show at the Mexico City gathering was Chilean abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who’s emerged as a key papal advisor. One could make an argument that Cruz is more important these days in shaping Pope Francis’s thinking on the scandals than all but a handful of Catholic bishops around the world, and that kind of influence for any survivor would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
In terms of the Notre Dame event, Scicluna’s appearance, which I hosted, was another powerful reminder that things truly have changed.
“My experience of meeting victims is what I call ‘sacred ground,’” Scicluna said, remarking that there is a “spiritual dimension” to the abuse scandals and that solidarity with victims is “a way of being close to Christ’s suffering.”
Fifteen years ago, when Sciculna was tasked by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with an investigation that would eventually lead to the downfall in disgrace of Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the powerful Legion of Christ, he was a lonely reformer struggling to find a toehold in an establishment largely in denial.
Today, Scicluna and his cohorts largely are the establishment, with the deniers mostly driven underground. That’s not to say they can simply flip switches in Rome and make things change on the ground around the world, but they are setting an utterly new tone in terms of direction and philosophy.
Scicuna also reminded American Catholics that they have much to be proud of, saying the U.S. bishops were “prophetic” two decades ago in requiring all deacons, priests, and anyone who works with minors to undergo background checks and requiring independent diocesan audits.
The Vatican event on digital child protection brought together senior leaders of the world’s biggest high-tech giants, including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, and featured a call for the creation of an “Internet Industry Roundtable” featuring tech companies and interfaith organizations to monitor and enforce on-line safety protocols to keep children safe,
“We need to work together, and it depends only on us if this meeting is a starting point or it’s just a conference,” said Carlo d’Asaro Biondo, President of Strategic Partnerships of Google for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
It was a reminder of both the Vatican’s remarkable power to convene, since it’s hard to imagine another venue in which all these stakeholders could have come together, and also of the Church’s determination that its own painful experience on the abuse scandals can be put to some positive social use.
Yet in the end, one can’t help but be haunted by the final question Scicluna fielded last Wednesday night during his town hall-style forum at Notre Dame. A student rose to ask how it was possible, given that misconduct concerns about McCarrick apparently were an “open secret,” that he was able to continue to rise up the ladder and remain at the peak of power for so long.
Other than acknowledging the legitimacy of the question, Scicluna was able only to say that a forthcoming Vatican report on what’s in its archives on McCarrick should shed some light. That report was promised last October, and it’s allegedly ready for imminent publication.
Scicluna himself would be the first to admit that’s not really a fully satisfying response. At the same time, the mere fact that someone who grasps so fully why such an answer isn’t good enough is now helping shape Vatican policy means the Church is, undeniably, different than it used to be.
So, to return to where we began: Does the Church “get it”? The evidence of the past couple of weeks appears to suggest the vintage Catholic answer probably has to be, sic et non.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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