Following historic abuse summit, Vatican outlines concrete steps

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Thursday, March 7, 2019

Pope Francis reviews papers during the third-day of a meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican Feb. 23, 2019. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ anti-abuse summit marked a crucial moment in the Catholic Church’s response to this long-running scandal, seeking to end the culture of denial and come up with a global, coordinated strategy.

The decades-long sexual abuse scandal has erupted in various parts of the world, and the Vatican gathering Feb. 21-24 was an attempt to end what has been piecemeal, localized responses to what is arguably the greatest credibility crisis to face the church.

Given this, we can point to two major takeaways from the gathering.

First, the meeting itself was unprecedented, bringing together 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences including from Africa and Asia to address a problem that to many cultures remains a taboo.

The bishops, along with senior officials from the Roman Curia, listened to harrowing testimony from abuse survivors including from an Italian woman abused by a priest for five years beginning when she was 11.

“A priest from my parish destroyed my life,” she told the participants. “What is most difficult is dealing daily with that experience that attacks you, and presents itself in the most unexpected moments.”

Any bishop will tell you that hearing the effects of abuse makes them look at the problem with new eyes. Driving the gathering was a desire to change hearts and minds inside the church by listening to survivors.

One of those blowing the lid on silence was Nigerian religious superior Sister Veronica Eponibo, who said that despite denials from some bishops, abuse is going on in Africa and Asia, and remains a serious problem. She urged the leaders to end “mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency” over the crisis.

Words, however, only go so far and victim-survivors demanded action. That was the second point of the gathering: the attempt to find concrete steps to deal with the crisis.

Among the proposals put forward included 21 points of reflection for the bishops given to them by the pope, along with eight best practice examples drawn from the World Health Organization and other international bodies. Along with requirements to handle abuse claims, the 21 points included a code of conduct for clergy and robust screening of seminary candidates.

The summit saw the announcement of a plan for task forces to help under-resourced bishops’ conferences struggling to come up with strong child-protection norms. Additionally, there are plans to revise and create new canon laws. This includes legislation governing the prevention of abuse in the Vatican and the Roman Curia, a change to the Pontifical Secret — a code of confidentiality used in the church — and an amendment to Francis’ legal ruling “Come una Madre Amorevole” (“As a Loving Mother”), holding bishops accountable. 

Those attending the meeting were also presented with a step-by-step plan to hold bishops accountable for allegations of sexual misconduct or of negligence in abuse cases.

This was set out by Cardinal Cupich, who explained how a diocesan bishop would be investigated by the regional archbishop, known as the metropolitan. This process would include lay experts before going to the Holy See and the pope for the final decision. 

The work of implementing the summit is now being worked on by the organizers and the Roman Curia. 

Two days after the event finished, however, shocking news from Australia that a unanimous jury had found Cardinal George Pell, the Holy See’s former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, guilty of five child sexual offenses against two choirboys in 1996 and 1997. 

As the highest-ranking figure ever to be convicted of such crimes, this news has been hard to fathom and process in parts of the Vatican. The cardinal, who is expected to be sent to prison for around a decade at his sentencing on March 13, has strenuously maintained his innocence and plans to appeal the verdict.

Nevertheless, the pope has ordered that he will now face a church investigation, a process which could see him being removed from the priesthood. The cardinal was charged with multiple sexual-abuse allegations by police, but most of those were dropped. That will not stop civil actions against Cardinal Pell and one man has already lodged his claim.

His conviction shows how the abuse scandal has affected even those at the highest levels of church leadership, and follows removal of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood over widely reported abuse allegations. 

Both cases underline the gravity of the scandal for the church and the need to take action.

The pope’s summit showed he is taking this crisis seriously, is facing up to the awful reality of crimes committed by pastors and is preparing to take all the necessary steps to ensure that the church is a safe place for children.


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