Will the summit on abuse bring meaningful changes in Rome?
“So much is at stake this week...I hope something important comes from it,” Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, told reporters at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 19, two days before the Vatican summit on the protection of minors in the church is scheduled to begin on Feb. 21. But if nothing substantial comes of the meeting, Ms. Barrett Doyle said it is her hope “the energy of change” can be assumed by secular forces “so that changes will come from the outside, through attorneys general, grand jury investigations and so on.”
“The Catholics of the world are grieving, disillusioned,” she said, because of “the sexual abuse of thousands of minors by clergy in past decades and bishops who covered up.”
“We all know,” she added, “that canon law has to be changed so that it stops protecting the priesthood of ordained men over the lives of children.
“I believe the church is no way close to enacting the reforms to end this epidemic,” she said, “which consists of two aspects: the sexual assault on minors by priests and the cover-up by bishops.”
BishopAccountability.org is one of the many advocacy groups for survivors of abuse by clergy that have descended on Rome this week from all over the world to highlight the problem ahead of the summit.
“We all know,” she added, “that canon law has to be changed so that it stops protecting the priesthood of ordained men over the lives of children.”
Ms. Barrett Doyle explained that in advance of the summit her organization had reviewed the church’s response to abuse in eight countries with the highest numbers of Catholics—Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, Italy, France, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which together represent 50 percent of the world’s Catholics.
She said the review showed that Brazil, with 172 million Catholics, has not posted a policy for handling abuse allegations on its website. “The crisis is invisible there,” she alleged, though her group had identified some 90 priest abusers in Brazil in 2012 and believes there are “thousands” of cases.
The church in Mexico, with the second largest Catholic population, claims to have dealt with only one abusive priest, while just four have been convicted of this crime. But, she said, the president of the Mexican bishops’ conference described clergy sex abuse as “a bottomless well” and is seeking “unusual new faculties” from the Vatican to deal with the problem.
In the Philippines, the third most Catholic country in the world, the church has had “a lax policy” since 2003 (though it has been removed from the website) and “no priest has been convicted of child sex crimes.”
Ms. Barrett Doyle said the church the Philippines “lets offenders return to the ministry” and “bishops don’t report priests” because they “have a relation that is analogous to father-son with them.” She charged that the Philippines’ church also tolerates “priest fathers” on “a one-child quota system.”
BishopAccountability.org found that globally eight bishops conferences—Brazil, Congo, Peru, Venezuela, Nigeria, India, Ecuador and Uganda—have not published guidelines on how to respond to child abuse and that only one of 20 nations in the world with the highest number of Catholics has a zero-tolerance policy—the United States.
Pope Francis “has the power to change the laws so that every priest found guilty of abusing minors is promptly removed from the ministry,” she said, “but I think the Vatican is continuing to resist the fundamental reforms.”
The importance of this summit of the presidents of the world’s 114 bishops’ conferences and of the Eastern-rite churches, which Pope Francis has convened, was underlined by the BishopAccountability.org survey. Pope Francis has said that he wants all of the church’s national conferences to be “on the same page” in terms of the response to the abuse problem.
Ms. Barrett Doyle added that Pope Francis is “the first pope to have said that bishops have to be held accountable” and “the first pope to have said that there has to be an end to cover-up.”
She said that she was “happy and encouraged” by his letter to the Chilean bishops but worries he now “seems to be on the retreat from consolidating reforms” because “he has not acted in a systematic way to change things, by removing bishops and laicizing them,” except in a few cases like that of the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
“He has the power to change the laws so that every priest found guilty [by Vatican standards] of abusing minors is promptly removed from the ministry,” she said, “but I think the Vatican is continuing to resist the fundamental reforms.”
Referring to the presidents of the bishops’ conferences attending the summit, she added, “I don’t think these bishops are bad men; I think there is a really bad system.”
She said, BishopAccountability.org “has a list of 101 bishops accused [of abuse or cover-up], and those who have been removed from office still carry the title bishop-emeritus.”
She noted, moreover, that the evidence shows that “bishops who are abusers are particularly bad when it comes to allegations against priests.” Ms. Barrett Doyle suggested that the Vatican install a proper internal database of all priests so it could quickly identify individuals who are alleged abusers.
Ms. Barrett Doyle was accompanied at the press briefing by Phil Saviano, 65, a board member of BishopAccountability.org, a survivor of abuse who took his story to The Boston Globe and later helped its Spotlight reporting team. “I first went public in 1992, and since then I think the church has made some progress,” Mr. Saviano said.
Describing himself as “an optimist” despite all he has been through, he added, “I hope that something good will come out of this summit.”
Mr. Saviano recognizes that Pope Francis “does seem to be capable of learning on the job” but said, “the question is how much power does he have to make changes on his own,” alluding to resistance within the Vatican and the church on this matter.
He emphasized “the importance of releasing names of priests and bishops who are found guilty,” even if it this means according to “the Vatican criteria for guilt,” in which case, he said, “we should know what those criteria are.”
Ms. Barrett Doyle thinks the Vatican has “played down the expectations” for this summit “because at the end they want to present us with a surprise, perhaps with something modest.”