Pope Francis’ special meeting on protecting children from sexual abuse by clergy may be a turning point for the Vatican, but many critics still wonder what took so long.
The four-day gathering, which begins Thursday, is expected to explore ways for the Roman Catholic Church to protect children from abuse by examining bishops’ legal responsibilities. It is also supposed to address accountability by church leaders and transparency in confronting cases of abuse.
Francis called more than 100 bishops from around the world and dozens of others, including superiors of men’s and women’s religious orders, to the Vatican amid ongoing scandals about decades-long clergy abuse.
The church last week announced the defrocking of former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing a child. The church and the pope during the past year have also faced an abuse scandal in Chile and a Pennsylvania grand jury report showing decades of cover-ups of abuse by priests.
“There is going to be every effort to close whatever loopholes there are and to make sure bishops understand what their responsibilities are,” Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who helped organize the meeting, said at a Vatican briefing this week. “My hope is people see this as a turning point.”
Cupich was joined at the briefing Monday by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top abuse investigator, who said, “Silence is a no-go. Whether you call it omerta or a state of denial.”
Scicluna said an initial response may be to deny problems, but that is not sufficient.
“It’s a primitive mechanism we need to move away from,” he said.
Francis called the meeting after his dramatic U-turn last year on abuse cases in Chile, where he first denounced victims for slandering priests, then admitted widespread abuse and prompted a number of bishops to resign.
“The pope said, ‘I got that wrong, we are not to do it again and we are going to get it right,’ and that gives us great hope,” said Scicluna, who led Francis’ investigation in Chile.
Francis on Saturday sought to show bishops he means business by defrocking McCarrick, 88, for sex crimes including abusing an 11-year-old boy about 50 years ago, marking the most serious punishment inflicted on a Catholic cardinal in modern times.
Father Tom Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, said the defrocking sent a clear message to bishops “who still say they don’t have a problem,” 17 years after a Boston Globe investigation revealed cases of abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and triggered a global wave of revelations about priests molesting minors.
A Massachusetts man who was abused by a priest when he was a youth, and whose evidence was used by the Globe, arrived in Rome this week to lobby bishops for change.
“I find it astounding that there are bishops in the world who still don’t understand,” said Phil Saviano, 66, who is on the board of abuse research group BishopAccountability.org.
Bishops summoned to the Vatican were asked by organizers to fill in a questionnaire about how they protect children and were told to meet abuse victims before flying to Rome.
Between Thursday and Sunday they will hear speeches from experts and victims and split into 11 working groups to discuss three themes — responsibility, accountability and transparency.
“There is no word for accountability in Italian, French, Portuguese or Spanish, which tells you something — if the word doesn’t exist, there is a lack of it,” said German priest Hans Zollner, a child protection expert involved in the meeting.
After the conference, task forces may be dispatched to countries where bishops still lack what the Vatican considers adequate anti-abuse measures.
If U.S. bishops at the meeting can afford to feel confident they have led the world in putting controls in place, the defrocking of McCarrick suggests the North American church is still nevertheless covering up the sins of its clergy.
McCarrick, a fundraiser and global ambassador for the church who even took on the role of spokesman for fellow bishops when they introduced a “zero tolerance” policy against abuse in 2002, escaped censure for years despite widespread reports in the church about his sexual pursuit of seminarians.
“We have seen this play out with priests over and over again, with all these bishops saying, ‘I thought he was fine!’” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org. “We have to look at a system that encourages allegations to fall through the cracks, which is designed not to process information but to preserve plausible deniability.”
Barrett Doyle cited the resignation of Los Angeles auxiliary bishop Msgr. Alexander Salazar in December over abuse allegations the local archdiocese was aware of in 2005.
Ahead of the conference, Catholic religious orders Tuesday offered their own apology for ignoring abuse in their ranks, with two umbrella groups representing the world’s male religious orders and female religious orders, respectively, saying they bowed their heads in shame.
“The strong sense of family in our Orders and Congregations – something usually so positive - can make it harder to condemn and expose abuse,” the Union of Superiors General and the International Union of Superiors General said in a statement. “It resulted in a misplaced loyalty, errors in judgment, slowness to act, denial and at times, cover-up.”
Zollner last week defended the Roman Catholic Church’s record on abuse, saying the church had done more to quantify it and block it than other organizations.
Zollner said that of the 300 cases of likely priestly abuse in the Catholic Church listed last year by prosecutors in Pennsylvania, only three occurred after 2002.
Saviano said the statistics proved little. “It takes a great deal of time for people to come forward, so this is not a time to be complacent,” he said.
Critics of Francis have alleged the pope meted out harsh punishment on McCarrick to cover up for how he himself had turned a blind eye to the former cardinal’s predatory behavior. For Catholic conservatives who resent Francis’ acceptance of homosexuals, the McCarrick case supports disputed claims that homosexuality is linked to abusive behavior.
Cupich denied that link on Monday and pushed back against claims that gay priests are less likely to expose pedophile colleagues because they are afraid the secret of their own homosexuality will become public.
“It is a hypothesis that has to be proven,” he said.
Amid the talk of accountability ahead of the meeting, the Vatican faced embarrassment this week after the diocese of Trenton, N.J., listed a priest, Msgr. Joseph Punderson, as having been removed from ministry after being credibly accused of sexual abuse.
The priest has since worked at the Vatican’s supreme court in Rome, suggesting he may have been moved to a new role after the allegations of improper behavior.
A Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, told reporters at the pre-conference briefing, “We are not here to discuss single cases.”