VATICAN CITY — The long-awaited “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church” was an extraordinary and historic gathering that surpassed many expectations while perhaps disappointing others.
Historic in that it brought together the heads of 114 bishops’ conferences from the entire world, as well as the leaders of religious congregations, curial officials and even a few laypeople to discuss in a semi-public forum the sins of Church representatives and to hear the powerful words of the victims themselves. Extraordinary in that it featured a drumbeat of eloquent and at times blunt criticisms by speakers regarding the way that the Church has handled abuse crises to date.
Pope Francis had four chief audiences to reach, each with its own suspicions and concerns.
The first was the broad leadership of the Church, the bishops of the world represented by the heads of their episcopal conferences as well as the leadership of religious congregations.
The second consisted of the victims of clerical sexual abuse who so often had been ignored, excused or even attacked for having the courage to tell what was done to them. Numerous organizations of survivors came to Rome to be heard, and many made their dissatisfaction with the proceedings known, judging them too little and too unsubstantial. Within the hall, however, other victims were heard in person and by audio. Their statements were read as reflections for prayer, and every session was reminded of what they are suffering.
The third audience was both the larger Catholic community as well as the general public, both of whom increasingly look on the Church as guilty until proven innocent and doubt that the Church is able to police itself.
The fourth audience was those members of the Roman Curia who have been cautious about some proposals and changes, for example those proposed by the U.S. bishops last year.
It appears that the actual proceedings over the course of four days had a powerful impact on the vast majority of the attendees. From prayerful meditations on the words of victim survivors to presentations by victims themselves, the bishops came face to face with the impact of clergy sexual abuse. While some of the attendees had previous experience meeting with those who had been abused, for others coming from regions where the crisis has not been directly acknowledged, it was revelatory. The cry of the victims was made flesh before their eyes, the tears and the trauma unavoidable and undeniable.
Assembled leaders heard from their own. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, launched the summit with a spiritual reflection on the necessity of touching the wounds of their people as Thomas touched the side of Christ. Other bishops addressed the needs for practical changes in administration, in Church law, and in how the bishops related to each other, personally and in terms of dioceses and conferences.
Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, shattered the myth that abuse was only a Western problem, recounting her experiences as a leader and as a woman religious regarding abuses in her own country.
Pope Francis, who sat through all the sessions and heard all the presentations, told the bishops at the start of the meeting that he wanted “concrete and effective measures.” In the final news conference of the meeting, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi identified three “concrete initiatives”:
• Legislation from the pope that would “strengthen prevention and the fight against abuse on the part of the Roman Curia and the Vatican City State.”
• A guide from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that would make clear the “duties and tasks” of all bishops when confronting allegations of abuse.
• The creation of task forces of “competent persons” who could “help episcopal conferences and dioceses that find it difficult to confront the problems and produce initiatives for the protection of minors.”
While none of these are new proposals, the impact of the summit, the explicit commitment of the pope, and the clear expectations of the larger world for a change in the status quo will put enormous pressure on the Vatican to deliver on these commitments while they in turn press all dioceses to do the same.
There are those in the Vatican bureaucracy who seem not to understand how devastating the scandals have been to some Catholic communities. The truth is that the proposed initiatives have long been in the works, and it can appear that all in the Curia do not fully appreciate the scale and the scope of the emergency.
The pope’s final speech at the summit’s end disappointed some. He emphasized that the abuse of minors was a “universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere and affecting everyone,” a rationale often heard from some Churchmen angry or defensive about the criticism the Church has endured.
But the pope made clear that the Church is not just any institution: “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
With this summit, Pope Francis has tossed down the gauntlet. The stakes are clear. In the words of Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, “All of this will take time, but we do not have forever and we dare not fail.”