ROME –On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that the organizing committee of a February anti-abuse summit has asked bishops to meet survivors in advance of that gathering in order to get a better grasp on the severity of the problem and the damage that abuse causes.
The summit, which will take place Feb. 21-24 and will be attended by the head of every bishops’ conference throughout the world, was called at the suggestion of the pope’s main advisory body on the abuse front, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Headed by Boston archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the 17-member commission was formally established in March 2014 and tasked with advising the pope and Church leaders around the world on best practices in anti-abuse efforts.
Since the beginning, the body jumped into action – organizing a budget and outlining priorities to be tackled by different working groups, targeting areas such as education and support for abuse survivors, and urging all bishops’ conferences to draft guidelines for the protection of minors, including steps on how to report abuse allegations.
In a statement following the Nov. 23 announcement of the 4-member organizing committee for the February summit – composed of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago; Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary for the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Vatican’s leading prosecutor on child abuse; 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 and a member of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors – O’Malley, who is notably missing from the list, said the commission will serve “as a resource for the organizing committee.”
O’Malley said one of the most important initiatives the commission sponsors is to facilitate meetings between abuse survivors and newly appointed bishops, and that it was precisely these meetings that prompted the idea for a similar “high-impact meeting” at a global level, meaning yesterday’s statement was likely a direct suggestion from the commission itself.
“This is a critical moment for the universal Church in addressing the sexual abuse crisis,” O’Malley said at the time, adding that the February summit will be a prime moment for developing “a clear path forward for dioceses around the world.”
To date, the commission’s weight has been felt mostly in its ability to influence papal policy-making, as most of Pope Francis’s moves on sex abuse have come at the behest of O’Malley and the commission.
In June 2015, Francis created a new tribunal within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith tasked with judging bishops who “abuse their office” when handling cases of clerical abuse and allowing for the allocation of funding to hire necessary personnel to run the new tribunal.
An idea pitched to the pope by the commission, the move to create the tribunal received praise from abuse survivors who at the time were members of the commission. In a tweet, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins said she was “very pleased the Pope has approved the Commission’s proposal on accountability.”
A year later, in June 2016, Francis issued a legal text called a motu proprio titled “As a Loving Mother,” which established, among other things, that negligence resulting in serious harm was enough to remove a bishop from office.
That document, like the tribunal, was drafted and published at the behest of the commission as a way to address not only clerical abuse, but its cover-up.
However, while these moves were initially hailed as signs of progress, the lack of follow-through has received harsh criticism, especially from survivors and Vatican watchers who say these tools have not yet been implemented.
In May 2017, Collins resigned from her position on the commission, citing “unacceptable” resistance to their suggestions from within the Vatican, particularly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Part of this resistance was to the tribunal itself, which never really got off the ground and eventually fizzled out entirely.
A year prior to Collins’ resignation, in 2016, Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor from the UK who was tapped as one of the original eight members of the commission, also stepped down after being asked to take a leave of absence following harsh public criticism of the way some Church leaders, including the pope, had handled abuse accusations.
Since her resignation, Collins has continued to be vocal about the need to implement the tools the commission has provided, including the 2016 motu proprio, which canonists have also said has yet to be applied, making it difficult to see if the new rules actually work without a concrete case study.
To date, most people would say the primary work and signature success of the commission, aside from building bridges between bishops and survivors, is adopting guidelines from bishops’ conferences around the world, particularly in areas where the crisis of clerical abuse as it is known and experienced in countries such as the U.S. or Ireland hasn’t arrived.
Yet despite the commission’s continued efforts on this front, many bishops’ conferences in Africa and Asia, in particular, have yet to draft guidelines, often because they lack the knowledge and infrastructure to properly handle allegations that might arise.
With the lack of follow-through on well-intended steps that have been taken, many have complained that Francis has been all bark but no bite on the abuse issue, and expectations are slim in terms of what will happen come February.
One of the biggest criticisms of the commission is that they do not take on major abuse cases or handle the legal side of allegations. Yet as an advisory body to the pope, members say that is not their role, and that the majority of their success has been enjoyed in the small, unnoticed steps taken at a local level, rather than big wave-making issues such as the tribunal or the motu proprio.
To date, the commission has worked with some 200 dioceses and religious communities throughout the world to raise awareness about abuse and educate on safeguarding.
With their work being thrown into the spotlight on a global stage, all eyes will be looking for some sort of tangible, concrete sign that the pope and the universal Church are ready to get serious in tackling clerical sexual abuse by not just listening to experts and survivors, but implementing what they have to say.