ROME – As the one-year mark of Pope Francis’s landmark summit on child protection approaches, survivors of clerical abuse are arguing that the pope, while taking positive steps, is inconsistent in his response to the problem.
Survivors have also called for the publication of the report on the Vatican’s lengthy investigation into former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and criticized Francis for apparently backing out of a commitment to a zero-tolerance approach to the issue.
In the past year, zero tolerance has “dropped out of the pope’s lexicon,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of the Bishops Accountability advocacy group, who spoke to journalists Feb. 17.
“I think zero tolerance is a pledge the pope is choosing not to make. I think he’s picking and choosing the changes he wants to make in the Church, and he’s chosen not to pursue that one,” Doyle said, adding, “I’m not so sure he was keen on doing it anyway.”
She voiced her hope that the situation changes in the near future, “because it is preposterous that the global organization that cares for millions of children still finds it okay to return a child molester to his job under certain circumstances.”
Doyle is currently in Rome alongside other activists from Bishops Accountability and other advocacy groups, such as Ending Clergy Abuse, to mark the 1-year anniversary of Pope Francis’s global summit on child protection.
From Feb. 21-24, 2019, Francis convened a summit on child protection at the Vatican which was attended by the presidents of all bishops’ conferences worldwide. The gathering sought to expel the notion that child sexual abuse is only a Western problem and emphasized the need to listen to survivors.
(It’s worth noting that during the summit, several experts criticized the use of the term ‘zero-tolerance’ as being unclear and meaning different things in different contexts.)
Several concrete action points were issued, some of which the pope has followed up on. However, Doyle and fellow panelists at the Feb. 17 event argued that while positive steps have been taken, there are still gaping holes to be filled, particularly when it comes to transparency and canon law.
Though disappointed in some of the pope’s actions, Doyle said the summit still did “a tremendous amount of good,” and has sparked a global conversation on topic that is often still seen as taboo.
“Many victims have come forward and found their voice,” she said, but cautioned that one major hole survivors want to see filled immediately is the looming “McCarrick report,” containing the results of a Vatican investigation into how ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick rose through the Church’s ranks despite open rumors about sexual misconduct.
On Oct. 6, 2018, just over 16 months ago, the Vatican promised a full investigation into the McCarrick affair, saying they would release the findings “in due course.”
“Why the delay? This is not what transparency is supposed to look like,” she said, voicing her hope that the lengthy investigation is because the Vatican is conducting a “thorough” and “comprehensive” report that will include documents “and names of bishops, and even popes, who knew and looked the other way.”
“It will require transparency and humility that can truly change the crisis and put it on the right course,” she said, adding that she hopes it comes quickly.
Phil Saviano, a clerical abuse survivor and a member of Bishops Accountability, said he is happy with some steps Francis has taken, such as the pope’s decision in December to lift pontifical secrecy in abuse cases, and the publication last May of Vos estis lux mundi, new Vatican guidelines on handling abuse cases which, among other things, makes it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, regardless of their ecclesial status.
Saviano said he is pleased that the document establishes a “no-excuses system” for priests, bishops and cardinals to report allegations and ensures that the Church’s treatment of those who come forward is “respectful and free of threats, intimidation and retaliation.”
However, he complained that the document falls short, lacking methods for the regulations to be enforced.
“What if the bishop keeps it to himself?” he asked. “How will it be discovered, and how will he be punished? What if a state does not have mandatory reporting laws? What is the level of transparency? If a parishioner reports abuse, will the church make it public? … If a cleric is found guilty, what are the penalties?”
With vague references to “just penalties” for those found guilty of abuse or coverup, canon law needs revisiting, he said.
Similarly, Doyle stressed that while some progress has been made, there are “mixed results” about the impact of the summit and the Vatican’s new guidelines at the local diocesan or parochial level.
Citing statistics from seven different countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as the United States, she said there are some signs of improvement, but in many places, such as Italy, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the situation is no different than it was before.
“What they all have in common is a sobering verdict on summit: It is still entirely possible today, as it was a year ago, for a bishop to knowingly keep a priest in ministry or return him to ministry without a consequence in canon law,” she said, adding that Vos Estis “does not solve this problem.”
Matthias Katsch, an abuse survivor and founder of the German abuse survivor advocacy association Eckiger Tisch, said “what has been done can be described as too little, too late and not enough.”
“We have been speaking out for years,” he said, noting that some clerical abuse survivors are already writing memoirs about their advocacy.
“Thanks to the efforts of victim survivors, things are getting better, slowly but steadily,” he said, stressing that “in each country you need survivors who speak up and people who listen.”
Arguing that measures taken in the past 12 months have “sidestepped biggest reforms,” Doyle said that to have true reform “would require a radical restructuring of canon law, because you’d have to make the restitution of scandal and of the accused subordinate to making justice the primary goal.”
“Canon law is a priest protection system” and “an obstruction to justice,” she said, voicing her belief that needed change “is going to come from outside of the Church.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen
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