ROME –Pope Francis has tapped Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich for a Vatican summit on the clerical sexual abuse crisis in February.
The cardinal – considered by many to be “the pope’s man” in the U.S. hierarchy – heads a list that includes abuse victims, loyalists and heavy-hitters in child protection as architects for one of the highest-stakes meetings of Francis’s pontificate.
The four-person organizing committee includes Cupich; Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who is the Vatican’s leading prosecutor on child abuse and who has played an instrumental role in cleaning up the abuse scandals in Chile; 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; and Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, who also serves on Francis’s council of cardinal advisors.
In addition to the four prelates on the organizing committee, Francis has also tapped Dr. Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary for the life section of the Vatican department for Laity, Family and Life, and Dr. Linda Ghisoni, undersecretary for the lay section of the same department, to help in the preparation work.
Other members of the commission for minors and a number of victims of clerical abuse will also help in the preparatory process.
Cupich recently came into the spotlight when he denied reports that he and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former archbishop and current apostolic administrator of Washington, had sought to advance an alternative bishop accountability proposal in place of the plan put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and which was presented during their recent general assembly.
Slated to take place Feb. 21-24 at the Vatican, the meeting will draw the heads of all bishops’ conferences around the world to discuss the clerical abuse scandals, and the importance of child protection. The president of the USCCB is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
The meeting comes on the heels of what many have dubbed was the “summer of shame” for the United States following revelations of widespread abuse and cover-up in a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing some 1,000 cases of child abuse carried out by some 300 predator priests, and the accusations of abuse and harassment by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
During October’s Synod of Bishops on young people, prelates came out as divided on the abuse issue, with prelates from Asia and Africa saying it was more of a western problem, and prelates from nations directly impacted by the crisis, such as the United States and Australia, pushing for a global commitment to “zero tolerance” – a proposal the gathering fell short of adopting.
With global Church leaders split on the issue and with many still reeling from the Vatican’s decision to ask U.S. bishops to delay making any moves on the issue until after the February summit, all eyes are turned to Francis and what results the meeting might yield.
In a Nov. 23 statement, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke called the February summit “unprecedented,” saying it shows that the protection of minors is a “fundamental priority” for the Catholic Church.
“This is about keeping children safe from harm worldwide,” he said, adding that Francis “wants Church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victims.”
Though the meeting is primarily for bishops, who “have much of the responsibility for this grave problem,” Burke noted that both laymen and women who are experts in the field will also give their input, helping to address what measures need to be taken “to ensure transparency and accountability.”
In a Nov. 20 statement published on his diocesan website, Cupich said the pope’s decision to call a meeting with the heads of all bishops’ conferences is a clear statement “that he recognizes the urgency of this issue, and that this is a watershed moment in the life of the Church.”
“Time and again, he has shown his resolve to comprehensively address this scourge, by removing bishops who mishandle cases of the abuse of minors and by disciplining cardinals and bishops for misconduct, to the point of laicizing some,” he said.
Cupich said the meeting is also proof that Francis does not view clerical sexual abuse as “strictly an American or Western problem,” but is one that effects the entire global Church.
“Pope Francis is calling for radical reform in the life of the Church, for he understands that this crisis is about the abuse of power and a culture of protection and privilege, which has created a climate of secrecy without accountability for misdeeds,” he said, adding that “all of that has to end.”
In an interview with Vatican News, Zoller said the committee has already begun a consultative process in which questionnaires will be sent to those invited to participate. Calling the February meeting a “very important moment for the Church,” he said it is important to share both experiences and difficulties in order to find solutions.
As far as the structure of the meeting, Zollner did not offer specifics, but said the environment must be “as free and fruitful as possible,” and must include time for prayer and reflection as well as analysis and proposals. He said Francis has already promised to be present during the working sessions.
Asked whether expectations for the summit were perhaps too high, Zollner said “expectations are high and it is understandable that they are, given the seriousness of a scandal that has shocked and wounded so many people, believers and nonbelievers, in many countries.”
Stressing that neither abuse nor cover-up are acceptable anymore, he said he believes Francis called the meeting because he is aware that the protection of minors is a “fundamental priority” for the Church in terms of its mission and its credibility.
Noting that Francis has often called the abuse crisis a “sacrilege,” Zollner said it’s a problem “that does not only involve one single country and certainly not only Western countries. It impacts all countries.”
It also happens in all environments, not just the Church, including school, sports and the family, Zollner said, and because of this, “it requires a firm and universal response, in the specific contexts and cultures.”
In his own statement Nov. 23, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the commission for minors and notably not among the committee appointees, said it was the commission which originally pitched the idea for the summit, which was endorsed by the pope’s 9-member advisory council, on which O’Malley also serves.
Though he is not on the roster of organizers, O’Malley confirmed that he will be there, saying, “I look forward to participating.”
O’Malley said the commission will serve “as a resource for the organizing committee.”
Among the most important programs the commission sponsors is meetings between survivors and newly appointed bishops, O’Malley said, noting that these meetings inspired the idea that summoning leaders of episcopal conferences to Rome for a similar “high-impact meeting” would be key.
“This is a critical moment for the universal Church in addressing the sexual abuse crisis,” O’Malley said, adding that the February summit will be a prime moment for developing “a clear path forward for dioceses around the world.”
O’Malley stressed the importance of a “zero tolerance” policy on abuse and transparency, “including the release of names of clergy accused of abuse and encouraging all religious orders to adopt a similar policy and cooperate with civil and legal authorities.”
He said the support and care of survivors must be put first, and said the process is a “life-long journey” that’s now a part of the “fabric” of the global Catholic community. It requires strong interaction between both laity and clergy, O’Malley said, in responding to “the failures of episcopal leadership” by “holding bishops accountable for crimes against children and vulnerable adults.”