Steps Were Taken at Vatican Summit, But Work Isn’t Finished


Last week’s unprecedented Vatican summit on clergy sexual abuse did not close with a specific set of rules to end once-and-for-all the seemingly endless abuse crisis, and it did not completely satisfy everyone.

The four-day summit seemed designed more to ensure that every bishops’ conference around the world recognized the gravity of the problem, but there was a sense by many observers that the time for talking about the reality of abuse has passed and that now is a time for action.

We agree.

But we also know that, sadly, the horrors that afflict humanity are not easily erased by a prescribed set of rules or waved away with a magic wand. It’s a long process with disappointments along the way.

Still, we applaud Pope Francis for calling together the leaders of the world’s 114 bishops’ conferences, heads of religious congregations, curial officials and a number of victim-survivors who spoke movingly about their experiences.

The stakes are high as the clergy sexual abuse crisis continues to roil the Church, and bishops and Church leaders must all be aware of the depth and seriousness of the problem, even if they’re from parts of the world where there are few, if any, reports of clergy sexual abuse.

We accept the word of Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the summit moderator, that guidelines will soon be issued to “help bishops around the world clearly understand their duties and tasks” when handling cases of abuse. 

We’re also heartened by the remarks of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who said the summit affirmed the belief of U.S. bishops that bishops or cardinals who abuse children or cover up abuse must be held accountable.

In fact, the U.S. bishops were working on such a policy for consideration at their most recent meeting in November when they were asked by the Vatican to postpone action until after the summit.

At the summit, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago presented a step-by-step plan for bishops’ accountability that’s expected to be considered in some form by the U.S. bishops, possibly at their spring meeting. Cardinals DiNardo and Cupich made clear as well that any plan adopted in the United States needs the involvement of laypeople.

Here in the United States, our bishops have been grappling with the abuse crisis for nearly two decades, resulting in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Minors that has sharply reduced the number of abuse cases in the years since. Indeed, the U.S. bishops likely have a more completely defined strategy at the level of priests and deacons than their counterparts elsewhere.

But every new case that comes up—whether mishandled or not— gives more fuel to Catholics and others who are already, and understandably, angry. Each time a state’s attorney general launches an investigation and every adoption of a victim-protection law (like New York’s recently passed Child Victims Act) create more anguish and anger.

We’re angry, too.

We’re still waiting for a report on how Theodore McCarrick—who rightly was laicized by Pope Francis—rose to become a cardinal despite a history of sexually harassing seminarians.

We’re shocked and angered, too, by the new bombshell that dropped just as the abuse summit ended: Australia’s Cardinal George Pell was convicted of five charges of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in the 1990s (the cardinal is appealing the conviction, but may serve jail time in the interim).

Meanwhile, we’re prepared for a rocky road ahead, and we pray that the leaders of our beloved Church can restore it as a place that we, and our children, can trust.

The pope, in his closing speech at the summit, called for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and vowed “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission.”

That’s exactly what all Church leaders must do.


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