After Vatican abuse summit, survivors express disappointment and call for concrete reforms
A group of nearly 200 Catholic leaders including cardinals, lay experts and philanthropists, who met in Washington last month to discuss the church’s ongoing sexual abuse crisis, released a report with dozens of recommendations just days after a global summit of bishops in Rome concluded their gathering about the same topic.
Kim Smolik, the head of the church reform group Leadership Roundtable, said in a March 1 statement that the recommendations “demonstrate how the church can create a new culture of leadership, as well as a new culture of how to respond to abuse.” The report, which included ideas for bishops and laypeople, called for “Catholic leaders to take swift and bold action.” When it comes to the role of the laity, the report’s authors said women, theologians and philanthropists must be utilized more by church leaders in order to create cultural change.
The Leadership Roundtable’s suggestions include developing a “code of conduct” for bishops and other ministers that “recognize[s] abuse of power not only against children, but also adults.” The report includes a call for greater transparency in a number of areas, including church finance—especially when it comes to donations and sexual abuse settlements—and in the process for selecting bishops. It suggests including laity in that process, empowering laypeople to assess how a potential bishop has handled allegations of abuse by priests.
Survivors of abuse and their advocacy organizations had expressed frustration with the lack of specific recommendations at the conclusion of the Vatican summit.
The report recommends a number of changes related to communications and transparency, including investigations into cases of abuse that happened after 2002, when U.S. bishops implemented the Dallas Charter, and to publicize the findings of the various inquiries into the abuses allegedly committed by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It says all the names of all “credibly accused” priests should be published.
The Leadership Roundtable is the latest Catholic group to react to the Vatican summit, which ended with few changes to church policy but with promises from the pope and other church leaders to make combating sexual abuse a priority. To help with that, the Vatican announced it would distribute a guide of best practices to bishops’ conferences and consider a task force to help under-resourced dioceses implement them.
The University of Notre Dame announced on March 4 that it would spend up to $1 million to fund “research projects that address issues emerging from the crisis” and host events on campus to educate the public about the church’s response to sexual abuse.
“Real progress will be achieved by initiating with others processes that include careful thought, study, continual improvement of laws, policies and practices, and sustained support for survivors,” said the Rev. John Jenkins, president of the university. “Most of all, it requires a change in hearts that leads us to a common and dedicated effort to prevent sexual assault, harassment and abuse in any form by anyone.”
Survivors of abuse and their advocacy organizations had expressed frustration with the lack of specific recommendations at the conclusion of the Vatican summit. Peter Saunders, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and a former member of the Vatican’s child safeguarding commission who resigned in protest in 2017, said he was disappointed by the pope’s concluding address.
“If a person in a country were to ordain women, you can bet that the Vatican would act with alacrity and get rid of that bishop.”
“The fact that it lacked passion or commitment was one thing, but it contained nothing concrete,” Mr. Saunders told America during an interview on Feb. 24 in Rome. “They’ve had four days to decide on the things they could do that would make a difference and they’ve avoided that.”
Many victims’ advocates had said the meeting would be a success only if it resulted in changes to church policy that included a church-wide zero-tolerance policy toward child sex abuse, like the rules U.S. bishops adopted in 2002, as well as new rules to hold bishops accountable. That did not happen.
“They could have done that. They failed to do it,” Mr. Saunders said. “More Catholics will leave the church and we will all become more determined to keep the pressure on this institution.”
Speaking to reporters on Feb. 24, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, effectively the Vatican’s point man on child protection, said zero tolerance will be “essential” as individual bishops’ conferences plot their next steps.
Some church leaders have said that the challenges in protecting children require a cultural transformation among the hierarchy, which will take more than changes to church policy.
The pope has made decentralization a priority of his pontificate and following the summit, it appears he wants to do the same with child protection, urging the heads of bishops’ conferences to create their own codes, perhaps with the help of Rome. But Ms. Barrett Doyle said in an interview with America on Feb. 24 that when it comes to other issues of global significance, the Vatican has not shown the same reservations about acting as an enforcer. “If a person in a country were to ordain women, you can bet that the Vatican would act with alacrity and get rid of that bishop,” she said.
During the summit, which included about 190 bishops from around the world, Pope Francis released a list of 21 “reflection points” related to abuse. They included ideas about how bishops should handle allegations but, at least so far, have not resulted in changes to church policy.
In response, the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests released on Feb. 24 its own list of “21 steps that you can take to help prevent abuse, protect children, and support survivors.” The items include reporting suspected abuse to law enforcement, inviting survivors of sexual abuse to share their stories at churches and pressing church leaders to publish the names of credibly accused priests.
Still, some survivors of abuse expressed cautious optimism. Speaking to NPR, Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor from Chile who lives in the United States, said he trusted the pope to handle the crisis, but added he wants to see bishops held accountable.
“I’m hopeful that they make bishops work with local law enforcement to hold them accountable also in civil society and civil law,” Mr. Cruz said.
Editor’s note: The author was an employee of the Leadership Roundtable from 2009 to 2014.