On February 21-24, Catholics leaders from around the world meet at the Vatican to discuss the crisis of child sexual abuse in the Church. This meeting was called by Pope Francis after serious allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups rocked the Catholic world over the past months. In the United States, these include the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the crimes of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. However, the past year has shown the worldwide scale of the issues. Chile, Germany, Australia, and several other nations have experienced new allegations of sex abuse within the Church. To address these problems, Pope Francis organized February's five-day conference with the heads of 130 national bishops' conferences.
The summit opened with a penitential liturgy and an opening statement by the Pope. He called the participants “to listen to the cry of the little ones who ask for justice.” Pope Francis also said, “The holy people of God are watching and are awaiting from us not simple, predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures."
One of the primary goals of the summit was to find structures by which can hold bishops accountable. Observers from the United States were particularly interested in the outcome of this discussion, recalling that in in November, the Pope had prevented the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) from passing a resolution to create such structures. Blaise Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, addressed this topic with four orientations to guide any system of accountability: “listening, lay witness, collegiality and accompaniment.”
Other addresses were made by on the topic of lay involvement. Linda Ghisoni, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, asked for the end of pontifical secrecy in trials on clerical sexual abuse. She said, “The involvement of the laity as such in matters that touch the ordained ministers is a guarantee of greater correctness, as they would be ‘third parties’ with respect to events.”
Sister Veronica Openibo, one of few women religious at the meeting, called out the hypocrisy present in dealing with these issues.
“We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards," she said. "Hypocrites at times? Yes.”
She also tried to dispel the idea that the abuse crisis is only a problem in the Western world. By as early as the 1990s, she had heard about abuse in her native country of Nigeria.
On the last day, Pope Francis outlined 8 guidelines for developing the Church’s legislation on protecting children. These included a change of mentality from protecting the institution to protecting children, a purification beginning with self-accusation, strengthening of rules by episcopal conferences, and combating sexual tourism around the world. In the wake of the conference, the Vatican will issue a book of guidelines for bishops dealing with abuse. Laws on abuse which apply within Vatican City will also be revised in the coming weeks.
Several criticisms of the abuse summit have already emerged. In an interview with NPR, Ryan O’Connor, a victim of clerical sexual abuse, said, “Frankly, we've had enough of talk. We want action. We want true accountability.”
Other critics have noted the absence of any discussion on clerical homosexuality. John Allen (Crux) noted a perspective on the issue that some of the critics from the United States need to remember. He wrote, “What’s become conventional wisdom in those parts of the world, where the abuse scandals have been a fact of Catholic life for decades, remains novel and sometimes almost incomprehensible elsewhere.”
There have been favorable responses to the meeting as well. Michael Sean Winters (National Catholic Reporter) reports Sean Cardinal O’Malley as saying, “The message of the Holy Father could not be clearer. The follow up is crucial, but this could be for the universal church what the Dallas charter was for the United States, a real game changer."