Many wonder if the upcoming summit on the protection of minors will result in a concrete response to the problem, given that Pope Francis and Vatican media have sought to downplay expectations.
But Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, one of the four members of the committee that prepared the meeting, told America he is confident “we can expect decisive action to follow from the meeting...both in Rome and in dioceses worldwide.”
He recalled that Pope Francis “has made it clear that the meeting,” which will be held at the Vatican on Feb. 21 to Feb. 24, “has a twofold purpose.” First, “to serve as a catechesis and formation so that the world’s bishops and the superiors of religious orders understand more profoundly the suffering [of the] victim-survivors” and “to make sure that everyone in the church around the globe—in every culture—is clear about their responsibilities for child protection as well as what it means for bishops [and superiors of religious orders] to own this issue and be accountable for it.”
He said that the summit’s second purpose is “to advance a framework of protocols for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse.” That framework, he added, would “identify for everyone the concrete steps required to implement practices that safeguard children and to bring justice to victims in a way that is responsible, accountable and transparent—even in cultures where law enforcement or the government may not be reliable partners.”
Cardinal Cupich expects the summit to clarify “to all that they are not alone in implementing measures and that they have to resolve as a body, as the college of bishops, to own this issue.”
The cardinal emphasized that “the bishops and the religious superiors are the ones who must take the decisive action required at this meeting of claiming ownership in a collegial way for the proper handling of abuse cases and for holding each other accountable.”
He expects the summit to clarify “to all that they are not alone in implementing measures and that they have to resolve as a body, as the college of bishops, in cooperation with religious superiors, to own this issue.”
That will mean, he said, “working together on the level of the global church and returning to their individual countries with the clear call to action for each bishop, and religious superior, to handle abuse cases according to the standards set forth by the church.”
Some have accused Pope Francis of speaking out strongly against the triple abuses of power, conscience and sex but not acting as forcefully when it comes to penalizing those who have abused or covered up. Cardinal Cupich, however, does not share this view.
He told America, “Pope Francis has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes, itself an important action, and a model for all bishops.” Moreover, “Francis has moved forward and forthrightly to make it clear in his Apostolic Letter ‘As a loving mother,’” published June 4, 2016, that a bishop “can be legitimately removed from office if he has through negligence committed or through omission facilitated acts that have caused grave harm to others, either to physical persons or to the community as a whole.”
He recalled that Pope Francis “has already acted accordingly in a number of cases,” such as in Chile, and “he has also clearly indicated the necessity of evaluating [existing] processes to assure the fulfillment of his commitment of accountability to victims and the Catholic community at large.”
“Pope Francis has acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes, itself an important action, and a model for all bishops.”
According to the cardinal, Pope Francis views the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons by clergy as “a global problem that requires a global response,” and “he wants all the bishops and religious superiors to be on the same page,” convening the February summit to ensure this is the case.
Cardinal Cupich said that while the church has been addressing this problem for more than 20 years, “there has never been a worldwide meeting of bishops on abuse.”
“The very fact that the pope has called this meeting,” he said, “indicates his resolve to make sure there is no doubt [in the mind of any bishop or religious superior] about what to do in such matters.”
He described the summit as “a clear signal that child protection must be a top priority, and no one can claim that this is not a problem in their part of the world.” The cardinal noted that “some have tried to make that case due to cultural sensitivities or other issues perceived to be more threatening, but the Holy Father is serving notice that this line of thinking is not acceptable and that the bishops throughout the entire church need to take responsibility for keeping children safe and holding everyone accountable.”
“At the same time,” he said, “the shape and dimensions of this problem differ from country to country, due to social, legal and cultural differences” and so “we need the church to establish a baseline understanding so that safe environments exist everywhere, but the applications could vary from place to place.”
Cardinal Cupich is a member of the committee established by Pope Francis in early December to prepare for the Feb. summit, together with Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Hans Zollner, S.J., of Germany, now at Rome’s Gregorian University. The committee sent a questionnaire asking the presidents of the 114 bishops’ conferences around the world to report back to Rome on what is being done in their respective national churches in response to the abuse scandal.
“We need the church to establish a baseline understanding so that safe environments exist everywhere.”
Cardinal Cupich revealed that 90 percent of the presidents of the bishops conferences and religious superiors have already responded. He said, “This information is being analyzed to get a better picture of what is being done in concrete circumstances, what challenges the church faces in different cultures and countries and what assistance is needed to assure global implementation.” He anticipated that the analysis of these responses will be made public “in some format yet to be determined.”
The U.S. cardinal confirmed that participants at the summit will be divided into small group sessions, by language, and will focus on “three main topics”: responsibility on day one, accountability, day two; and transparency on the summit’s third day.
He said that fuller details of the program and participants will be made known at a press conference in the Vatican on Feb. 18 at which members of the preparatory committee will be present.
Once the summit has ended, the cardinal said, “it will be up to the various conferences of bishops to make necessary adaptations that reflect their particular circumstances and cultures.” He said, “Task forces will be made available to help bishops’ conferences implement these steps in ways that are in keeping with the expectations outlined at the meeting.”
Survivors of abuse too will have a role at the summit, the Chicago cardinal said. Before the February meeting, Pope Francis had “asked participants to meet victim-survivors in their home countries, so that they will come to Rome carrying in their hearts a more personal understanding of the overwhelming pain and damage victims endure.”
During the summit, survivors “will participate by giving testimonies each day at the daily prayer services and at the penitential service.” The cardinal said that “listening to victim-survivors is what brings about real conversion of hearts and compels us to act.” For that reason, he said, “one of the topics for discussion will be how to assist and urge all bishops to personally connect to victims as part of their responsibilities, and to do so in a way that follows the example of Pope Francis.”
“The Holy See is aware of these horrendous abuses of women and is working on addressing them; however, in this meeting the priority focus will be on protecting children.”
Ten representatives of women’s religious orders will participate in the meeting, together with two women who are officials in Vatican offices and a number of female survivors of abuse by clergy. The question of the abuse of lay women and women religious by clergy has been a media focus recently. America asked the cardinal if this abuse of women would also be addressed at the summit.
“As Pope Francis has made clear,” he said, “the Holy See is aware of these horrendous abuses and is working on addressing them; however, in this meeting the priority focus will be on protecting children because they are particularly defenseless and voiceless. It is necessary that we start there.”
But, he added, “I am convinced that whatever we do in the church to improve the way we deal with sexual abuse of minors will be applicable to these other issues because those matters also involve responsibility, accountability and transparency.”
Cardinal Cupich said, “The protection of children and the weak is a core value of the church. It is also central to the role of the bishops in the life of the church, as we are pastors who care for the people of God. We take these matters extremely seriously. Failure to do so will continue to undermine the very mission of the church. We know that is what is at stake.”
Asked about the possibility that some in the church and in the political right in the United States may be using the abuse question to attack Pope Francis’ leadership of the church, Cardinal Cupich said, “We should not allow anything to divert our attention away from the priority of ensuring the safety of children around the world and holding accountable those who have harmed and those responsible for their safety.
“The Holy Father is uniting the church to pursue this priority,” he said. “This is where I am focusing my energies. How others may be responding to this moment is of little concern to me, if it distracts the church from this priority.”
Some commentators have asserted that the pontificate of Pope Francis is at stake in the February meeting, but Cardinal Cupich sees things differently: “It is not a question of what is at stake for the pontificate of Pope Francis, but what is at stake for the church.”
Indeed, he said, “We are fortunate to have a leader such as Pope Francis, who is uniting us in the call to respond strongly to the scandal in a way that ensures justice for victim-survivors, safe environments for all our people and accountability for all who fail in this regard.”
[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the church abuse crisis.]