The recently concluded Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the church was framed in the same old top-down way that's at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, and theology were excluded. What could be more wrong with this picture?
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Survivors of sexual abuse, women religious, LBGTIQ advocates, and some journalists made impressive showings during the recent “Protection of Minors in the Church” meetings in Rome. Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops, not so much. The Vatican had lowered expectations going into the meeting once it became clear that Catholic people around the world demand action not just words. From all that I saw and read—talks and press conferences were live streamed; press coverage was extensive—the clerics came in well below even their own low bar.
As I surmised beforehand, the meeting was “held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.”
Just imagine if the meeting had been held in September 2018, right after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued with its shockingly large number of victims and offenders. That would have also been right after reports came out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused countless seminarians and priests. The Vatican crowd could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
Think of what would not have been on the table. Many terrible revelations have emerged since September:
Lists of hundreds of credibly accused priests from dozens of dioceses and provinces of men’s religious orders are now public.
A report on the many children who have been fathered by the fathers, as it were, is under review.
The sordid details of the McCarrick saga are clear, including his abuse of someone in the confessional, which was a major reason for his subsequent defrocking.
Reports of clerics sexually abusing nuns in India and elsewhere are now common knowledge.
A page-turner of a study of the incidence of allegedly gay, sexually active, but most of all duplicitous priests in high positions in the Vatican entitled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy opens another vista.
Report of the Apostolic Nuncio to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, under investigation for molesting a government staffer just surfaced.
In fact, all of that data was part of the backdrop of the meeting, but no one peeped about most of it. Maybe next time the clerics will learn to act faster for their own good.
Pope Francis gathered 190 heads of bishops’ conferences as well as ten women religious who lead their orders and their equivalent in men’s congregations for the summit. But the real action was in the streets and surrounding buildings, where scores of sex abuse survivors and their supporters protested, told their stories, and gave interviews.
The more the clerics droned on in endless platitudes and careful parsing in lieu of implementing policy, the more the survivors garnered credibility and sympathy. A skilled facilitator would have invited the survivors into the hall, paired them each with a bishop, and invited them together to lay out constructive next steps for the church. Alas, no such forward-looking person was in a position to do so, least of all the much-touted and deeply disappointing pontiff.
Instead, the official meeting featured videos of survivors at yet one more remove from the bishops, many of whom had never listened to survivors in their own dioceses. It’s no wonder. These stories are hard to hear. One woman in a video told of being forced as an underage teen into sex with a priest; he paid for her three abortions. Some bishops expressed genuine shock, leading observers to wonder where they have been for the last two decades.
Still others continued to externalize the problem as a Western issue, suggesting, for example, that problems like child soldiers demand equal time. No doubt, good brothers, but the stated focus of the meeting was on the protection of minors, with the implied tagline “from priest/bishop abusers.” There are many actionable forms of abuse of children, but this time the focus was on that perpetrated by and covered up by clerics. The Vatican was not trying to solve the world’s problems, but to look at its own.
By many measures it failed miserably. The gathering was too homogenous to be useful. It was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, theology, and the like were excluded. Clerics met in small groups to talk with other clerics. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Pope Francis in his final statement captured the egregious miss that was this meeting. He started off generally: “Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” Then he went on to contextualize clerical abuse by talking about the high incidence of abuse at home. He’s right, of course, but the difference is that families don’t have as their reason for being the well-being of the world’s people. That is the Church’s (now empty) claim.
He painted a broader picture of pornography, sex trafficking, and other precipitating forces that make up “the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.” There is no mystery here. His priests and bishops abused minors and some covered it up. What’s so mysterious about that? A large number of minors have been sexually abused by a large number of clerics. Period. Full stop. It’s simply the beginning of a hideous story that includes the abuse of seminarians, nuns and other women, children of priests, and more, all of whom merit summits of their own.
Francis’ discussion of power fell flat. He claimed that the sexual abuse of minors is an abuse of power. He completely passed over the structures of vastly unequal power between clergy and laity that are the bedrock of this power differential, a causative factor in church-related abuse. Without changing those structures the chances of eradicating sexual abuse of minors by clergy are nil.
Francis concluded with nothing new, concrete, or effective, using vacuous terms like “impeccable seriousness” and “genuine purification,” highly spiritualized notions that might ground new policies. I do not think so. And I know that few are going to wait around to find out.
Survivors and their supporters left empty handed while bishops toddled off to their dioceses without clear direction. On the one hand, one can applaud Francis for not imposing new laws by fiat, for inviting people to a “personal and communal conversion.” But “zero tolerance” is hardly a new idea or something around which consensus has to be built. It does not mean someone must leave the church as the McCarrick case proved, only that the person be dealt with by civil authorities and leave ministry where the possibility of abusing power remains. Is that too much to ask in the face of mounting evidence of criminal behavior and cover-ups?
On the other hand, Francis’ approach might mean that church teachings and polity will be handled locally as abuse cases are. Catholics can rejoice that such moral sticky wickets as abortion and homosexuality, and such disputed matters of ecclesiology as the ordination of women and married men to the diaconate and presbyterate, will soon be announced as local options as well. I doubt sincerely that this is in the cards, but it follows logically. Logic was at a premium in Rome during the summit.
This dilemma, this selective use of papal power, points to the fundamental problem at hand. It’s the need for new ecclesial structures rooted in a realistic theology that would mitigate power inequities and begin to reshape the global Catholic Church into safer, more participatory communities with the full participation of women and lay men in every facet of church life.
To that end, the undisputed highlights of the meeting were the three presentations by women. Some of the clerics expressed surprise that Canon Lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Nigerian Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Veronica Openibo, and longtime Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, had such powerful and well-grounded analyses, and that they minced no words in their articulation. Apparently the men have been asleep for the last four decades when Catholic women have developed such competencies with no help from the institutional church.
Dr. Ghisoni challenged the overuse of official forms of secrecy in the Vatican, the so-called “pontifical secrets,” claiming that much of what had been hidden for the sake of protecting good names and the institution was relevant for public discussion. She knows that Canon Law can and must change. Pope Francis’ bizarre comment about feminism being “machismo in a skirt” following her talk suggests that she might have struck a little close to home.
Sister Openibo asked the clerics why they had persisted in silence for so long: “Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?” She concluded with the need to “be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society,” marching orders for those who want to solve this problem.
Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican journalist who has worked during five pontificates over four decades taking 150 papal trips, was equally frank. She left these words ringing in the ears of the assembled: “… we journalists are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice. We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role.”
She recommended that the clerics turn over a new leaf with the new onslaught of information about the abuse of women in the church. This time, she counseled the institution to “play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors. It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.” Nothing that emerged from Pope Francis’ finale, nor from the final press conference that included Vatican spokespeople, indicated that this would happen. Nonetheless, the women speakers pointed the way forward.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along with the conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
There’s solace in the strength of survivors, the savvy of these women speakers, and the solidarity of people around the world. When asked for bread, the Roman Catholic Church can no longer get away with giving a stone (Matthew 7:9). Roma finita est