Church leaders and victim advocates temper expectations for Vatican’s abuse summit
Catholics attending Mass in the Archdiocese of Chicago this weekend heard a recorded message from Cardinal Blase Cupich, updating them on a meeting to be held at the Vatican later this month that is expected to address clergy sexual abuse. The cardinal also apologized to the faithful who have been let down by some of its leaders.
“I know how hard these past few months have been for you,” said the cardinal, who is helping to plan the Feb. 21-24 meeting. “I understand the anger and disappointment many feel as the church suffers from the scandal of clergy sexual abuse, and the mishandling by some church leaders.”
Cardinal Cupich: “I understand the anger and disappointment many feel.”
In September, following months of revelations about the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the United States and elsewhere, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had summoned the heads of bishops’ conferences in 130 countries to the Vatican for this month’s meeting.
The pope has urged caution from those who hope the meeting will yield new policies and protocols related to preventing abuse. But expectations for the meeting have been heightened, in part by church officials who have long pushed for church leaders to take abuse more seriously.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, an expert on sexual abuse in the church, told the Associated Press in October, “we know there is a great expectation for more accountability” and said Catholics “need to trust Pope Francis to develop a system whereby there is more accountability.”
The pope has urged caution from those who hope the meeting will yield new policies and protocols related to preventing abuse.
Archbishop Scicluna, along with Cardinal Cupich, Cardinal Oswald Gracias (who sits on the pope’s council of cardinal advisers) and Hans Zoller, S.J. (the president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome), were tasked by the pope with organizing the February summit.
Writing at Religion News Service, Thomas Reese, S.J., warned that the meeting “may well be a failure before it even starts.”
Father Reese, a former editor in chief of America, wrote that not enough time was allotted to planning the meeting, that it is too ambitious in scope and that a global meeting means it is unlikely that a common set of policies will be found.
“Francis may pull it off, but I fear that when the meeting is over, it will only be seen as a small step forward in an effort that is going to take years,” Father Reese wrote.
“Francis may pull it off, but I fear that when the meeting is over, it will only be seen as a small step forward in an effort that is going to take years.”
But Zach Hiner, the head of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said that his group hopes for “some sort of plan for accountability for any bishops or cardinals who may have had some sort of role in covering up or minimizing allegations of abuse.”
One example of a reform that S.N.A.P. hopes to see implemented are protocols for holding bishops accountable for covering up abuse that do not require the Vatican to investigate and take action, which critics say is too cumbersome a process.
Mr. Hiner took issue with the participation in the meeting of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who in his role as head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will be present in Rome. Cardinal DiNardo has faced allegations that he mishandled cases involving priests accused of abuse in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, claims he denies.
Mr. Hiner said he does not anticipate “any groundbreaking changes, but I'm hopeful they will be considered.”
In his message to Chicago-area Catholics, Cardinal Cupich sought to assure Catholics that the meeting will be fruitful.
Calling victims of clergy sexual abuse “courageous,” the cardinal said the pope understands the problem of sexual abuse by priests and the cover-up by some bishops is a “global problem that needs a global solution.”
S.N.A.P.’s Zach Hiner said he does not anticipate “any groundbreaking changes, but I'm hopeful they will be considered.”
“The Holy Father’s aim in calling the meeting at the end of this month is to make sure that every bishop in the world takes personal responsibility and is held accountable for how he handles these matters,” Cardinal Cupich continued. “But the pope also intends to make clear to all bishops the concrete steps for complying with this agenda.”
Cardinal Cupich said that listening to victims and “taking measures to protect children and holding everyone accountable is the only response to make” to the sexual abuse crisis.
“Getting this right is the priority,” he said.
Catholic organizations throughout the United States have announced events related to the abuse summit, including a workshop on Feb. 6 at The Catholic University of America and a conference call hosted by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative on Feb. 18. This past weekend, the Catholic reform group Leadership Roundtable, responding to requests from more than 50 dioceses for help in responding to the crisis, hosted more than 200 church leaders in Washington, D.C., including Cardinal Cupich and Father Zollner, along with Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Newark Cardinal Joseph Tobin, as well as survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Attendees discussed “concrete measures that can be taken in the immediate-, mid- and long-term that lead toward necessary reform and recovery,” according to Kerry Robinson, the group’s global ambassador.
(Editor’s note: The author worked for the Leadership Roundtable from 2009-2014.)
A report discussing ideas about the root causes of the crisis and offering best practices in terms of accountability will be made public ahead of the Rome summit.
A Leadership Roundtable report on best practices in terms of accountability will be made public ahead of the Rome summit.
Ms. Robinson said the Rome meeting’s short duration may limit how much output is possible, but she added that she is encouraged by the pope’s commitment to continue meeting with victims and the global nature of the meeting.
“I can attest to my own travels to the church across the globe that this is a systemic problem, but the degree of consciousness about the urgency and the priority of it being a challenge to the church is very different depending on where in the globe you are,” she said. “Bringing everyone up to the same level of consciousness about the severity and urgency of this is a critical component [of the meeting].”
U.S. bishops were slated to vote on a series of proposals addressing sexual abuse during their November meeting in Baltimore, but those plans were scrapped after the Vatican asked them to wait until after the February meeting. It was later revealed that the proposed guidelines were not sent to the Vatican until just days before the vote was scheduled to take place, which church leaders in Rome felt was not enough time to vet the policies.
The four men planning the summit released a letter on Dec. 18 to the heads of bishops’ conferences urging them “to reach out and visit with victim survivors of clergy sex abuse in your respective countries prior to the meeting in Rome, to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.”
And a letter from Pope Francis to U.S. bishops gathered for a weeklong retreat in Chicago in January to reflect on the abuse crisis condemned the “mentality that would cover things up.”
“Combating the culture of abuse, the loss of credibility, the resulting bewilderment and confusion, and the discrediting of our mission urgently demands of us a renewed and decisive approach to resolving conflicts,” the pope wrote.
But in recent days, the pope has tried to downplay high hopes about this month’s meeting.
Speaking to reporters on Jan. 27 during an in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome from World Youth Day in Panama, Francis said, “I perceived inflated expectations. We have to deflate expectations to these points that I have made because the problem of abuse will continue; it is a human problem, a human problem [that is] everywhere.” Rather than create new protocols, the meeting will inform bishops about the scope of the sexual abuse crisis, the pope said, and inform bishops about how they are supposed to handle claims of abuse.
Correction: The Leadership Roundtable meeting was held in Washington, D.C., Feb. 1-2, but not at Georgetown University as a previous version of this article stated.