A Vatican conference on sexual abuse will test the credibility of Pope Francis this week as abuse victims gather in Rome to call for zero tolerance for clerics who molest or rape children and escape jail time.
But the four-day conference on the protection of minors, which starts on Thursday after two months of planning, is already being dismissed by prominent Vatican watchers and victims’ organizations as rushed and a probable letdown.
Rev. Thomas Reese, a U.S. Jesuit priest, author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church and a senior analyst at Religion News Service thinks the event is too short and cluttered to deliver a sea change in Vatican policy – and that Francis lacks the iron will necessary to implement his no-excuses stand.
In a comment piece, Father Reese said that “in order [for the conference] to succeed, Francis will have to lay down the law and simply tell the bishops what to do, rather than consulting with them. He’ll have to present a solution to the crisis and tell them to go home and implement it. Francis will not do that. He does not see himself as the CEO of the Catholic Church.”
At a presentation at the Foreign Press Association on Tuesday in Rome, Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S. research group that tracks church abuse cases around the world, said she believes that cover-ups are still the norm in many Catholic dioceses, even though Francis talks tough.
She noted that only in one country – the United States – has the church taken a “zero-tolerance” approach to abusive priests. “So much is at stake this week,” she said. “The Catholics of the world are grieving. … [But] I believe the church is nowhere near to enacting reforms.”
The conference will see almost 200 bishops, archbishops, cardinals and members of religious and victims’ groups gather to discuss the themes of responsibility, accountability and transparency in the fight to prevent the abuse of minors. Almost every country in which the church is active will send a bishop or his spokesman. Canada’s main representative is Bishop Lionel Gendron of Quebec’s Saint-Jean-Longueuil diocese and the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
The Canadian church’s long and grim history of abuse was instrumental in forming the Vatican’s early response to the scandals. In 1984, the Canadian government’s Bladgley Report, “Sexual Offences Against Children in Canada” – while not specifically about abusive priests – recognized that the problem was a widespread one.
Three years later, according the Holy See Press Office, the CCCB circulated guidelines for reporting and punishing offenders that could be enforced at the diocesan level. More diocesan policies emerged after Newfoundland’s infamous Mount Cashel orphanage case, one of the largest abuse cases in the world, was fully exposed in 1989. In 1992, the CCCB published the first report by an episcopal conference (an assembly of bishops in a given territory) on how to respond to child abuse. The report said: “We would like to see our Church take firm steps which would leave no doubt as to its genuine desire to eradicate the phenomenon of child sexual abuse.”
Despite the official Canadian warning – and many others, as abuse cases erupted in Boston, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere – the church has lurched from scandal to scandal, all the while being severely criticized for covering up abuse, failing to report cases of abuse to civil authorities, refusing to adopt strict rules on exposing predatory priests, treating cases of abuse as sins rather than crimes and not naming and shaming thousands of alleged child molesters.
The Vatican conference comes less than a week after the Pope defrocked Theodore McCarrick, 88, a cardinal and former archbishop of Washington and, historically, one of the most powerful and well-connected prelates in the U.S. church. He was expelled from the priesthood after a Vatican trial found him guilty of abusing minors. Francis refused to grant his appeal request. He is the most senior cleric to be fired from the priesthood.
The Pope called the conference in September and formed an organizing committee two months later. The Holy See Press Office said the Pope wanted the bishops to become “aware of the tragedy, of the suffering of the victims” and learn what procedures must be put in place to punish and prevent abuse so that “the Church’s credibility and the people’s ability to trust the Church might be recuperated.”
While the Pope himself has talked about “zero tolerance,” those words do not appear in the stated theme of the conference.
One of the organizers, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, said at a Monday news conference that the event’s goal is “to make sure bishops claim ownership of the problem,” and that “loopholes” allowing some bishops to shirk their responsibilities to report abuse cases are closed. He did not go into details about the loopholes.
BishopAccountability.org is not getting its hopes up for a breakthrough. In its presentation to reporters, the organization highlighted the sometimes shocking inadequacies of the handling of abuse cases by the largest episcopal conferences. Ms. Doyle said Cardinal Sergio da Rocha of the Brazilian church, who is one of the senior participants at the conference, has released no documents about cases of abuse or names of accused priests and has not made an apology to victims. “He made no comments about abuse until yesterday,” she said.
In the Philippines, home to some 80 million Catholics, no priest has been criminally convicted for abuse, she pointed out. Philippine Archbishop Romulo Geolina Valles, who is attending the conference, and his fellow bishops “do not report [accused] priests to civil authorities” and often allow offenders to return to their ministries, she said.
Phil Saviano, an American abuse victim who helped The Boston Globe uncover evidence of widespread abuse and related cover-up in the Boston dioceses in 1992 and whose story was told in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, is to meet conference members on Wednesday at the Vatican. At a meeting with reporters on Tuesday, he said he thinks the conference can achieve little. “The church just works slowly,” he said, adding that the event seems too short, given the scale of the problem. “How much can they really accomplish in four days?”