Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

The February meeting at the Vatican: its nature and scope

January 23, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

On Nov. 23, 2018, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis asked Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay and member of the Council of Cardinals; Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, founder and president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and Cardinal Cupich to serve on an organizing committee to plan a historic global meeting at the Vatican, scheduled for Feb. 21-24, 2019, on the topic of “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” Victim-survivors of abuse by clergy and members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, including lay women, lay men and clergy, are involved in the planning.

Pope Francis has made it clear that this meeting will be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference. The aim is to provide clear direction and concrete steps so that when the bishops return to their home countries around the world, they will know exactly what the church expects of them regarding the prevention of abuse, the need to provide care for victim-survivors and the obligation to make sure abuse is not covered up.

Participants have received a questionnaire as a means of gathering information that will establish a common starting point, and they have been asked to meet with victim-survivors in their respective countries. The Holy Father has assured us of his presence throughout the meeting, which will include plenary sessions, working groups, prayer, listening to the testimonies of victims, a penitential liturgy and a closing Mass.

The abuse of minors is a global problem that requires a global response by the church. Those participating in the meeting will be called to take responsibility not just for their particular church and the clergy and religious under their care and supervision, but for the church as a whole.

As Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who will serve as moderator of the meeting, observed in a Dec. 19, 2018, La Civilta Cattolica article:

“The entire church must choose to live in solidarity, above all with the victims, with their families and with the ecclesial communities wounded by the scandals. As the pope has written, ‘If one member suffers, all the members suffer together’ (1 Cor 12:26), and the commitment to protect minors has to be taken on clearly and effectively by the entire community, starting with those in the highest positions of responsibility.”

As the organizing committee develops the agenda, we will focus on the following elements, as Lombardi describes them: “penitential prayer, to establish in sincere conversion, as an unavoidable reference point, true awareness of the suffering and damage suffered by the victims; reflection on the real situation, seen directly and unambiguously and with sufficient information about what has been done and what has not yet been done to face up to it; exchange in working groups and in moments of shared reflection on the actual tasks that need to be adopted and on the ways to verify they have been put into place and are efficacious; the sharing of best practices already put into action for the reform of relations within the church and for the spread of a true culture of protection of minors in the church and in society.”

This meeting is a stage along the painful journey the church has taken for decades, and we need to keep before us the lessons we have learned, especially in the United States, including:


  • The need to make victim-survivors the priority over the defense of the institution. The way ecclesial authorities in the past too often responded to this scandal was indefensible. Victims were neglected, the truth was hidden to avoid scandal, the guilty were reassigned following the advice of professional clinicians under the illusion that the problem could be resolved by moving them to a new place or after receiving therapy. Their courage in coming forward must never be forgotten;
  • The importance of rigorous reforms in the selection and formation of candidates to priesthood and the ongoing formation of the clergy. All candidates for seminary studies in the United States now receive background checks, undergo psychological evaluations, and receive formation in human psycho-sexual development;
  • The important role of the media in forcing the church to respond to the previously largely hidden and undervalued demands of transparency;
  • Sexual abuse is a crime and therefore requires justice for victim-survivors.

Here in the Archdiocese of Chicago, we report all allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities, offer support to all who make allegations through our Victim Assistance Ministry, remove archdiocesan clergy from ministry permanently if an allegation of abuse of minors is substantiated and publicize the names of those with substantiated allegations against them.

To the degree that U.S. bishops have implemented the measures they adopted in the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, abuse was dramatically reduced. But much remains to be done. A global response is needed, and this is the reason the Holy Father has called all presidents of bishops’ conferences to Rome in February.

Each of these leaders and the bishops they represent must take responsibility and be held accountable. As Pope Francis put it in a 2015 address to victim-survivors: “I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”

No one should live under the illusion that their country or diocese is exempt from this great evil, as if this is only a “Western” or “American” or “Anglophone” issue. As Lombardi observed: “With unbelievable naïveté people think that this is only a marginal problem in their own country. … There is a need to look reality in the face.”

That reality includes attending to the selection of candidates for the priesthood and proper training. It includes a rejection of the tendency to protect the institution of the church by hiding the truth. It includes acting in a way that rebuilds trust and credibility with laypeople, law enforcement and society as a whole.

A global meeting like this offers an opportunity to understand the differing cultures, laws and political authorities affecting the church in different countries around the world. At the same time, church leaders must embrace this moment to commit to live out our sacred duty to protect minors and vulnerable persons from clerical sexual abuse.

I often return to Lombardi’s La Civilta Cattolica article to help maintain focus as we prepare for the meeting in February: “If the problem is not fully confronted in all its aspects, the church will continue to find itself facing one crisis after another, her credibility and that of all priests will remain seriously wounded, but above all, what will suffer will be the substance of her mission to proclaim the Gospel and her educational work for children and young people, which for centuries has been one of the most beautiful and precious aspects of her service for humanity.”

For the Spanish version of the letter, please click here.



  • clergy sexual abuse