The Vatican summit on the protection of minors is over. What’s next?

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The recent Vatican summit on the protection of minors ended on Feb. 24. Since then many have asked, “What’s next?”

The question often comes from representatives of survivors’ organizations who were very active during the summit. At its conclusion, many expressed disappointment at the apparent lack of the “concrete measures” that Pope Francis called for in his opening talk but did not deliver in his closing address. They felt “let down,” according to Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopsAccountability.org.

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But the majority of bishops and religious superiors came away with a very different read on the summit and the pope’s closing talk. Several told me “a significant shift” in thinking had taken place within the meeting that augured well for their collective response to the grave abuse crisis that is eroding the church’s credibility and undermining its mission throughout the world.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, in an exclusive interview with America at the summit’s end, put it this way: “We could see people maturing in their reactions as the days went by.... They were an intense three days, but the experiences of prayer, the listening to victims, the inputs we had were emotionally charged, so there was not only information but also an appeal to our emotional intelligence.”

The summit “spoke to the heart of people,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “I think that is where true transformation happens and where the motivation to do the right thing is born and develops.”

Pope Francis called the meeting precisely for this purpose—to bring about a change of hearts, a conversion, a cultural change among bishops and religious superiors worldwide because he knows that without such a change all the papal decrees and changes in Vatican law are unlikely to achieve the desired goal of defeating sexual abuse inside the church.

The summit focused on three aspects that are central to the role of bishops and religious superiors in addressing this crisis: responsibility, accountability and transparency. It also looked at the need for a collegial and synodal response at both the local and universal church levels to the abuse of minors.  

The presidents of the bishops’ conferences and the religious superiors returned to their respective communities with some clear ideas to communicate to their fellow bishops or religious superiors. The following ideas may be well known in countries like the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom, but that is not always the case in other parts of the world.

First, they must recognize that this is a universal and serious crisis that is destroying the church’s credibility and must be addressed in every country. Church leaders must address it in a collegial way, as Cardinal Oswald Gracias told summit participants during his keynote address; this means bishops must work together and with Rome in addressing cases of abuse and setting safeguarding standards. They must also address the crisis in a synodal way, involving lay men and women as well as members of religious orders, as Cardinal Blase Cupich explained in his keynote talk.

The first important one is the preparation of a vademecum or handbook that will serve as a guide for bishops’ conferences and bishops across the globe in dealing with cases of sexual abuse or cover-up.

Second, bishops and religious superiors must listen to victims, take their allegations seriously and deal with them in a proper and timely way (the vademecum mentioned below is intended to guide them in this). Third, there must be no cover-up of any abuser, whether bishop, priest or religious. Fourth, they have to be transparent in their response to victims and the allegations and keep victim-survivors informed about what is happening in church investigations of their reports. Finally, they must seek to provide all the necessary assistance, including medical and other care, that the victims of abuse may require.

The bishops now may realize, in the words of Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, “We dare not fail”—something the Vatican, too, understands and is seeking to assist bishops around the world with a number of follow-up measures.

The first important one is the preparation of a vademecum or handbook that will serve as a guide for bishops’ conferences and bishops across the globe in dealing with cases of sexual abuse or cover-up. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is preparing this text, but it could take several more months to finalize because, as Archbishop Scicluna explained to America, it will need to be up to date with church legislation; it will have to incorporate any new changes in canon law that the pope may soon approve.  

Archbishop Scicluna, the Vatican’s top prosecutor of sexual abuse cases, said that Pope Francis “has received suggestions for a change in the law that governs sexual abuse of minors, which is the motu proprio ‘Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,’” and has already “agreed that concerning pornography, a minor would be a person under 18.” He said another anticipated change concerns the revision of the Vatican laws regarding pontifical secrecy concerning sexual abuse cases and pornography cases.

Advocates for survivors and speakers at the summit, including keynote speakers Linda Ghisoni and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, had called for the revision of these secrecy standards. “Discussion is still ongoing” on this matter “and has to happen within the congregations in Rome,” Archbishop Scicluna said. He added, “There is a growing feeling that these cases should not be subjected to the pontifical secret.” Archbishop Scicluna said, “The vademecum can be finalized once these developments happen.”

Another important question that will be dealt with in the coming months concerns the question of “the appropriate mechanism for the accountability of bishops.” Archbishop Scicluna explained that “this has to be reviewed on the level of procedures at the Holy See but certainly also, after the request of the American bishops, concerning the local level.” This will mean “either a review of the motu proprio ‘As a loving mother’ or a by-law or regulations implementing this motu proprio that would address these two levels.”

Changes are also expected to follow a review of the canon law procedures for penal trials, according to the Maltese archbishop. He disclosed that “the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts is preparing the revision of the book concerning penal sanctions and penal procedures,” and “there are suggestions that a role is given to victims as the aggrieved body.” This would mean that victims would have a part in such trials and “would also be party to the administrative procedure.” The archbishop is in favor of this.

Federico Lombardi, S.J., the moderator of the summit, speaking at the final briefing for the press on Feb. 24, announced some other follow-up initiatives that will be made public soon. He mentioned two laws and a set of guidelines for Vatican City State and its pastoral equivalent, the Vicariate of the Holy See. Archbishop Scicluna explained that these involve “changes in the penal law of the Vatican City State concerning the abuse of minors, reporting mechanisms and the statute of limitations.”

Moreover, he said, “we are talking about this law being extended, by a special law, for members of the Roman Curia even if they are not operating within the territory of Vatican City State, so that would include diplomats [also in nunciatures] or members of congregations or dicasteries that are not within the territory of V.C.S. but are around the city of Rome.” It will also include “guidelines which are the equivalent of guidelines that bishops have in their dioceses because the pope has also at heart the pastoral care of people either living or visiting the V.C.S.”

In addition to the legislative issues mentioned above, there will also be “task forces” to help bishops in local churches that may lack the necessary resources to deal with the abuse question.

Archbishop Scicluna explained that there are few resident children in the Vatican City State, but “there are lots of visitors.” Moreover, “there is also a pre-seminario that houses a number of young people that serve at Masses in the basilica, and then you have the pueri cantores of the Sistine Choir who don’t live there but study there, have rehearsals and also take part in the celebrations of the Holy Father.” Because of the presence of these and other children and youth within Vatican City, the archbishop said he considers it “very important to have those guidelines.”

In addition to the legislative issues mentioned above, there will also be “task forces” to help bishops in local churches that may lack the necessary resources to deal with the abuse question. “These are not about exercising jurisdiction over bishops,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “They relate to facilitating churches’ prevention guidelines.” Details about the task forces will be made known later.

Before and during the summit, advocates representing victim-survivor organizations emphasized the vital importance that the meeting should affirm a zero-tolerance approach. Several expressed disappointment that Pope Francis did not mention this standard or use the term “zero tolerance” in his closing talk—especially since he has used the expression on other occasions.

Asked about what that omission says about the Vatican’s understanding of zero tolerance, Archbishop Scicluna first recalled that “the Holy See, already in 2003, approved a special law for the United States that says that a person who is guilty of sexual abuse cannot remain in the ministry.” Furthermore, he said, “we have a number of important churches that already adopt the principle that a person condemned of the sexual abuse of minors will be removed from ministry. We are talking about the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland. So there’s a huge number of conferences that already adopt the principle.”

So, he said, “when people ask for this to be universal, they are talking about the experience of these established churches that have suffered a lot, that the crisis has cost them so much.”

Archbishop Scicluna, whom Pope Francis appointed some months ago as adjunct secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, giving him a crucial role in dealing with the whole abuse crisis, told America, “We all go back to what John Paul II said on April 23, 2002, that ‘people need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.’”

He stated, moreover, “it is now acquired wisdom that, first of all, sexual abuse is egregious, but equally egregious is cover-up, and, secondly, that what applies to priests also applies to bishops.”

Pope Francis appointed a special committee of four members to prepare for the summit—Cardinals Cupich and Gracias and Archbishop Scicluna; and Hans Zollner, S.J., as summit coordinator. This group is now also overseeing the follow-up to the summit in close collaboration with members of the Roman Curia. They already held a number of meetings after the summit’s end, including one with the heads of all the Roman congregations last Monday and will meet again in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned.

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Joanne Carroll
8 months 2 weeks ago

I think there needs to be much bolder action to include the laity especially women in these discussions. This panel failed to address the roots of this massive abuse of children and the hypocrisy of covering it up. They plan to modify their response policies, at a very late date. This is not enough. What is it in the structure of the Catholic Church that has allowed this abuse to go unchallenged and unexamined for over 50 years! It is time to provide an equal voice to women and sincerely consider their inclusion in full ministry in the Church.

Annette Magjuka
8 months 2 weeks ago

Yes

Mike Macrie
8 months 2 weeks ago

This action is short term in its thinking. I believe it’s a stop gap measure to prevent abuse and prevent would be abusers in becoming Priests which is good. But it doesn’t address the shortage of good young men becoming Priests. This is going to become a Crisis in the very near future.

Maxwell Anderson
8 months 2 weeks ago

It wouldn't take more than five minutes for the Pope to write a memo commanding that the follow-up meetings and similar processes publish their agendas in advance, and include among their participants some lay representatives from the survivor organizations. It seems the traditional "Details will be known later" approach of secrecy and diplomacy is being followed instead of a radical upgrade in responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Annette Magjuka
8 months 2 weeks ago

Yes

Lucie Johnson
8 months 2 weeks ago

I think Pope Francis called that meeting to bring about a change of hearts... I hope he had some success. It is much harder to change hearts than to create a set of procedures. Though of course those are needed too, and some of them have been issued too and more are coming down the pike...

James M.
8 months 2 weeks ago

Until the Vatican and hierarchical swamps are drained, nothing can be expected. Bureaucrats love the sound of their own voices.

Tim O'Leary
8 months 2 weeks ago

Very underwhelming and disappointing. I hope the follow-up will be better than the start. Is this what the US Bishops were told to wait for? They wanted an immediate plan for the US but were told to wait for a better plan in Feb. I am not sure exactly what Pope Francis and his team of four Friends of the Pope really want - a real long-term solution or just the appearance of a solution. They assiduously avoided the pink elephant in the room, the enablers of sexual abuse by bishops of youth and young adults (McCarrick, Zanchetta, and others). Why? Is it because too many Friends of the Pope would be embarrassed by the investigation, that they knew of the abuse of adults and decided it was better handled in secrecy, only to find out it spilled over into minors later on?

The investigation into the McCarrick case is ongoing in the US. The investigation into Zanchetta is only beginning. The Cardinal Pell travesty will require they have to take a stand, one way or the other. This will not go away on its own. What about the Vigano charges? They need a public database of every bishop who is under investigation, what the charge is, and the outcome of the investigation. They cannot respond to a question from a journalist like they did here, saying they didn't know how many investigations are going on. No doubt, some accused bishops will be innocent, so they need to publicize the exoneration just as much as the conviction. A bishop should step aside while an investigation is ongoing, and be fully returned if he is declared innocent. This is only just. My biggest criticism of the BishopAccountability online database is their failure to efficiently remove names of clergy exonerated. But, it is presently the only comprehensive game in town. The Vatican should have its own public database, including alleged enablers as well as alleged perpetrators, so everyone knows 1) how accurate it is compared to other sources, 2) how extensive the problem is, 3) how it is being efficiently addressed.

Pope Francis seems to have a self-imposed gag order regarding the Vigano accusations and others like Zanchetta. The conference emphasized 3 things: Responsibility, Accountability, and Transparency (R.A.T.). I suggest that sunlight is a better disinfectant than silence.

Vincent Couling
8 months 1 week ago

O'Leary: You speak of the Pell "travesty" ... i.e. you intimate that Pell's conviction is a false or distorted representation of the truth. Elsewhere you recently claimed that "Yes. This jury was unanimous. The last trial was 10:2 in Pell's favor." (see your comment under https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/02/25/cardinal-pell-most-senior-catholic-charged-child-sex-abuse-convicted )!!! Can you please let us know how you ascertained that the jury was 10-2 in Pell's favour?!!! From what I can tell, this is fake news.

"Some in Catholic circles had raised questions about his guilt by reporting that the hung jury in the cardinal’s first trial had come to a 10-2 decision to acquit the prelate. This claim has been strenuously disputed both by a legal expert and journalists in the court room. University of Melbourne law professor Jeremy Gans said there was “very little reason to think it is true,” pointing out that it was illegal for jurors to reveal details about their deliberations. During the first trial, the judge was told the jurors had reached an impasse and told them they could reach an 11-1 verdict. It was equally probable, therefore, that the jury was 10-2 in favour of a guilty verdict as it was to acquit, while two reporters in the Melbourne courtroom saw some jurors in tears indicating the deep divisions among the twelve. “I don’t think this claim [10-2 not guilty] can be trusted,” stressed Professor Gans. " (see, e.g., https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/11439/church-grapples-to-come-to-terms-with-pell-conviction- ).

O'Leary: Do you stand by your claim of "10-2 in Pell's favour" (in which case, kindly furnish us with hard evidence), or do you concede you have erred (wittingly or otherwise) in positing this as a fact? For me, the most important question is: "Are you, O'Leary, deliberately propagating mendacity to sway public opinion as regards the Pell case?"

Tim O'Leary
8 months 1 week ago

Vincent - Several outlets have reported the 10:2 vote. It possibly originated from a source of the Daily Beast (link below), a well-known anti-Catholic progressive site (they ignored the gag order). While I accept it is certainly possible the DB or its source are lying (lies about Pell seems to be a cottage industry in the Australian media), it could have come from a jury member, which would have been illegal (so the DB will not reveal its source) and not shared with journalists. It does seem certain the first jury could not find Pell guilty, whereas the 2nd did, just by viewing the video of the 1st trial, which could have prevented a sound evaluation of the credibility of the accuser. Since there was only one accuser, who never mentioned it for 2 decades, who had a very checkered memory (e.g. Louise Milligan said the accused claimed the sacristy door was locked, whereas in the trial the accuser said it was wide open and people were visibly walking around - and the whole vestments contradictions), the lack of either boy screaming or resisting or ever talking about it, or being missed from the choir, and the second boy denying multiple time to his mother, up until his death, that he was every abused by anyone, etc. I provide some links below from Australian writers who find the guilty verdict incredible, including the Jesuit Fr. Brennan, who attended both trials. But, to believe Pell is guilty, one has to dismiss the contrary claims of the only witness (the other boy), and one has to believe that it is possible to have oral sex with two teenagers in rapid succession (6 or 8 mins reported), through copious liturgical vestments, by a newly appointed Archbishop, who has been dealing with an already public child abuse crisis and had only recently authored a policy for investigations of clergy. One has to believe a stickler for liturgical rules would abandon his staff and the congregation and enter a sacristy that was expected to only have other priests inside, kept the door wide open. One would have to believe the bishop and the boys returned to their previous activities right after. One would have to believe that the memory contradictions were resolvable. Maybe, you can believe all that. I cannot.

The second case at Bellaret (a claimed inappropriate touching case) has been thrown out by the courts, as have others, all surfaced in a police driven advertising campaign (Operation Tethered). There is now a suit. I will wait to see if evidence surfaces in the suit that makes this credible.

10:2 reported by the Daily Beast (para 11): https://www.thedailybeast.com/hold-cardinal-pells-second-secret-sex-abuse-trial-called-off and the Register (para 15) https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/after-guilty-verdict-questions-raised-about-pell-trial-88675
Andrew Clark of the Aus Fin Review https://www.afr.com/news/is-george-pell-innocent-20190227-h1bsub
Fr. Brennan (who attended the trial) https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/truth-and-justice-after-the-pell-verdict
Australian Gerard Henderson said that Pell was the victim of a “modern-day witch hunt.” https://cal-catholic.com/they-have-convicted-an-innocent-man/

Vincent Couling
8 months 1 week ago

What's next? Well, the Pell saga looks set to become even more convoluted ... it certainly warrants an extraordinarily thorough examination! "Cardinal Pell to be sued over alleged abuse in swimming pool in 1970s ... The man was one of four complainants due to give evidence against Pell in the second, “swimmers trial” ... A man who claims to have been molested by George Pell in a swimming pool in the 1970s has filed a civil lawsuit against the Cardinal. ... Lee Flanagan, from law firm Arnold Thomas & Becker, who is leading the case said his client was devastated when the trial was dropped. The statement of claim says: ““On the day in the pool, [Pell] put a finger between the plaintiff’s buttocks through his bathers on three or four occasions.” Mr Flanagan said three other witnesses who allege similar incidents of abuse by Pell would be called in the case." https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/11435/cardinal-pell-to-be-sued-over-alleged-abuse-in-swimming-pool-in-1970s-

Michael Barberi
8 months 1 week ago

A very weak conclusion to this Synod. What's next you say. I can only express my profound disappointment.

> No attempt to get to the truth of the entire McCormick scandal. In particular, how and why did JP II promote him to Cardinal when many US Bishops and Cardinals knew of his decades-long sexual abuse including the Apostolic Nuncio to the US.

> No mention of "who" will do the investigating of allegations of the sexual abuse by priests and the coverup by bishops (e.g., the PA Grand Jury Report, and other such evidence).

> Very few details about how bishops who covered up sexual abuse or committed such crimes will be held accountable.

> No definitive directive to list of the names of priests and bishops who are under investigation be made public?

> The list goes on.

I pray for Pope Francis and our Church.

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