Pope's clergy sex abuse summit: 5 questions for the Catholic Church going forward

(NEWS ANALYSIS) Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.

The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.

Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.”

What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.

To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:  

What has changed?

This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.

“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”

How concrete remains the big issue. On the summit’s first day, 21 “points of reflection” were distributed to reporters and posted to the Vatican’s website. In them, the church fell short of zero-tolerance, but did make some headway in trying to eradicate the problem by implementing guidelines and procedures. For example, the pope controversially proposed that dioceses not publish lists of priests accused of abuse before a preliminary investigation and what he called “definitive” condemnation.

The ones that stand out from the list of 21 are No. 7 (Establish specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops); No. 13 (Establish provisions that regulate and facilitate the participation of lay experts in investigations and in the different degrees of judgment of canonical processes concerning sexual and/or power abuse); and No. 16 (Introduce rules concerning seminarians… Be sure that there are programs of initial and ongoing formation to help them develop their human, spiritual and psychosexual maturity, as well as their interpersonal relationships and their behavior.”)

Can we expect more transparency from the church going forward?

This is the Catholic church after all, so such a question needs to be put into the proper context. The church is run more like a monarchy than a democracy, so whatever edicts are implemented — and how they are practically implemented — depends on who’s in charge.

There are many cardinals and bishops who have failed the church in the past. There’s no reason to believe that will change given that the church is made up of people prone to mistakes. What there does need to be is more accountability and transparency.

On Saturday, a top cardinal admitted that the church destroyed files to prevent documentation outlining decades of sexual abuse. In his speech, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church’s administration had left victims’ rights “trampled underfoot” and as a result had “made it impossible” for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.

“The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offenses were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden,” he added.

The bombshell admission — a moment of frankness rarely seen at this level during a Vatican event — further demonstrated the church’s sincerity in trying to make amends. What it also did, however, was open itself up to great scrutiny. When were these documents destroyed? Over what length of time? Ordered by whom? Was it done on Vatican orders? How many dioceses around the world did it include? And on and on.

Marx later clarified at a news conference that he was referring to what had occurred in Germany. Nonetheless, how pervasive was (is?) this practice in other countries? We don’t have the answer to that. Secrecy remains a very big part of this institution, something highlighted by Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, in her talk over the weekend.

Will all victims get the attention they deserve?

It depends who you ask. While those on the doctrinal left argue that children remain the focus on those who have largely been abused; those on the right say the issue remains largely about homosexuality among priests who have broken their celibacy vows.

The pope said the goal of the summit was to take concrete steps to stop the abuse of “children” — referring to them as the “little ones” — which clearly implies this is a pedophilia problem. Team Francis and those largely on the left have been beating this drum for quite some time and the pope’s remarks over the four-day event were another reminder of it.

The revelations last summer stemming regarding Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was recently defrocked by the church, helped to highlight once again that 80 percent of victims tend to be teenage males. In the midst of the summit, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, sidelined throughout the summit, went — not surprisingly — off script, even calling for a report to be compiled on who knew what and when regarding McCarrick, one of the most powerful and politically-connected men in modern church history.

It remains noteworthy that the word “homosexuality” was not in the pope’s opening speech, the 21 “points of reflection” or in his speech on Sunday. What was addressed included stories of abuse by prelates of lay people and nuns (a very large part of Saturday was dedicated to that) as the pope and cardinals listened.


How will the pope’s legacy fare?

Time will tell. Victims groups give the pope mixed reviews on the summit. There was plenty to criticize, especially after his election was supposed to usher an era where this problem would finally be dealt with following the 2002 investigation by the Boston Globe that brought the issue to the fore.

The most-recent crisis began last year when the pope defended a Chilean bishop accused of cover-up. It intensified over the summer with the McCarrick revelations and a grand jury in Pennsylvania that detailed allegations of 70 years of abuse and cover-ups in six dioceses across the state.

As allegations and investigations become more widespread, a Pew Research Center survey released this past October found that confidence in the way this pope handled the crisis plummeted. The survey found that just three-in-10 U.S. Catholic said Francis is doing an “excellent” or a “good” job addressing the issue.

The photo-ops and public statements could very well reveal themselves to have helped in the short term. On Saturday, Francis led the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences in a penitential liturgy, a moment aimed to illustrate how sorry the church really is for the abuse scandals.

“For three days we have spoken to each other and listened to voices of victim survivors about the crimes that children and young people have suffered in our church,” he said. “We have asked each other: how can we act responsibly and what steps do we now need to take? But so that we can go into the future with new courage, we must say, like the prodigal son: ‘Father, I have sinned.’”

Few can deny the power of those words and the images it produced, but Francis’ vow to be “concrete” will only happen over time as the church tries to regain the trust it has lost.

Can Catholics on the left and right now work together to fix the problem?

These warring factions have agreed on very little in recent years — and this summit did virtually nothing to bridge the divide. The easiest way to gauge this is by examining the media coverage of the past few days.  

On the right, Church Militant was relentless in regards to the admission Saturday that church records had been destroyed. In its story, this line stands out:

Prelates like Cdls. Walter Brandmuller and Raymond Burke recently have called for transparency of different kind — namely to end the conspiracy of silence regarding “the plague of the homosexual agenda” within the Church. Marx didn't engage in a discussion of that issue.

On the left, the National Catholic Reporter — in covering the same story — had a rather different emphasis. The story opened this way:

A top cardinal has admitted that the global Catholic Church destroyed files to prevent documentation of decades of sexual abuse of children, telling the prelates attending Pope Francis’ clergy abuse summit Feb. 23 that such maladministration led "in no small measure" to more children being harmed.

Contrast the use of “homosexual agenda” with “children” and you can see what’s going on and how these audiences view the problem. The healing continues, but so does the divide on what the root causes are and how to best fix them going forward.