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Five reasons the pope’s clergy sex abuse meeting in Rome will fail

Pope Francis attends an audience with the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings at the Sala Regia, at the Vatican, on Jan. 7, 2019. Francis says next month's meeting of bishops from around the world aims to "shed full light" on clergy sex abuse and covers-ups. He called the abuse of minors "one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable." (Ettore Ferrari/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — Next month’s meeting in Rome, called by Pope Francis to deal with the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, may well be a failure before it even starts.

The stakes for the meeting have been ratcheted up, at least for the American church, as the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse has summoned up new scrutiny of the church’s response, from the pews and from government officials; then, in November, the Vatican squelched a vote at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting on measures designed to hold the hierarchy accountable for not dealing with abuse.

Now, more than 100 presidents of episcopal conferences from all over the world, plus a dozen or so other participants, are headed to Rome for a four-day conference beginning Feb. 21. According to the Vatican, the meeting will focus on three main themes: responsibility, accountability and transparency.

There are five reasons this meeting will fail.

First, four days is much too short a time to deal with such an important and complicated issue. The Vatican says the meeting will include “plenary sessions, working groups, moments of common prayer and listening to testimonies, a penitential liturgy and a final Eucharistic celebration.”

If each participant speaks only once for five minutes during the plenary sessions, that would consume over 12 hours — almost half the time for the meeting. Add to that speeches from the pope, victims and experts, as well as time for small group discussions and prayer, and the time is gone.

Most major meetings of bishops in Rome, such as last October’s synod of bishops on young people, last a month. Even at that, synods have always felt rushed, with little time at the end to prepare and approve a report. To think that the February meeting can accomplish anything in such a short time is not supported by experience.

Second, the expectations for this meeting are so high that it will be impossible to measure up.

Any meeting called by the pope raises expectations, but this one addresses a high-profile issue that has dogged the church for decades. It’s the first meeting of its kind at the Vatican, and the media have been anticipating it in numerous stories.

In addition, having sidelined the efforts of U.S. bishops in November, the meeting must come up with a way to hold bishops accountable, or it will make the excuse look unwarranted and phony.

A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Third, a strength of this meeting is that it will include presidents of episcopal conferences from all over the world. These are some of the most important bishops from their countries. But the cultures and legal systems of the participants vary tremendously, which will make agreement on policies and procedures difficult.

Many bishops in the Global South do not believe that sex abuse of minors is a problem in their countries. They see it as a First World problem.

This is in part because many Global South bishops have no idea how bad the problem is. In their traditional cultures, victims of abuse are very reluctant to come forward to report the abuse to the church or civil authorities.

As a result, too many bishops around the world are making the same mistakes that the U.S. bishops made before 2002, when coverage of abuse in Boston encouraged thousands of victims to come forward. The bishops deny the problem; they treat it as a sin, not a crime; they don’t listen to the victims; they believe the priest when he says he will never do it again; they keep him in ministry; they cover up.

It is most important that these bishops be convinced that the problem is real, and they should avoid repeating the mistakes of the American bishops.

Fourth, as far as can be seen at present, the meeting is not well-prepared.

When the pope calls a synod of bishops, there is a long and complicated process of preparation that can last a couple of years. Bishops’ conferences are consulted; discussion questions are distributed; and the input from these consultations is summarized in a preparatory document that is circulated among the participants. There is also an office in Rome that is responsible for organizing the synod.

Pope Francis attends the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia at the Vatican on Dec. 21, 2018. Francis vowed that the Catholic Church will “never again” cover up clergy sex abuse and he demanded that priests who have raped and molested children turn themselves in. (Filippo Monteforte/Pool Photo via AP)

This meeting, on the other hand, was only announced by the pope in September, and the committee created to organize it was not appointed until the end of November. The committee’s first communication with the meeting’s participants was in the middle of December, which gave the bishops until Jan. 15 to send in their response to a questionnaire enclosed with the letter.

On the positive side, the letter urged participants to meet with abuse survivors before coming to Rome. The committee realizes how important it is to hear directly from victims, both for their healing and for a better understanding of abuse by those who listen.

The preparatory committee does have a stellar cast: Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, and Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Gregorian University. Scicluna and Zollner are recognized experts on the abuse crisis who have credibility with both the media and survivors.

Nonetheless, the meeting will also fail because, in order 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. He has a great respect for collegiality, the belief that the pope should not act like an absolute monarch. At his first synod of bishops, he encouraged the bishops to speak boldly and not be afraid to disagree with him.

I support the pope’s commitment to collegiality, but discussion and consensus-building take a lot of time. People, especially survivors and the media, are rightly impatient. They are not looking for another discussion and pious talk, but concrete policies and procedures that will protect children and hold bishops accountable.

In addition, Pope Francis thinks more like a pastor than a lawyer. He calls people to conversion rather than creating new policies and structures.

According to Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the Vatican press office, “It is fundamental for the Holy Father that when the Bishops who will come to Rome have returned to their countries and their dioceses that they understand the laws to be applied and that they take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, to care for the victims, and to make sure that no case is covered up or buried.”

Francis appears to believe that the current laws are sufficient but need to be enforced. His goal, then, will be to get the bishops on board, not come up with new solutions. This is important, but it will not satisfy those wanting accountability structures to punish bishops who do not do their jobs.

I hope I am wrong in being such a pessimist — as a social scientist, I am always a pessimist when looking at the church and the world. As a Christian, I have to be hopeful. After all, my faith is based on someone who rose from the dead. Francis may pull it off, but I fear that when the meeting is over, it will only be seen as a small step forward in an effort that is going to take years.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

44 Comments

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  • Good article.

    It is simply not possible that the colleagues of clergy who abused individuals in their congregations (and others) were unaware of the activities of their fellow clergy.

    similarly, it is simply not possible that the bishops did not understand that these were serious FELONIES.

    Unless and until the Vatican is serious about cleaning up these messes, they will continue, and the lying and denials (e.g. Wuerl) will continue.

    But since the Vatican has shown that it understands almost nothing about sex, and is more concerned about protecting the church than the congregants (gee, what was it that Jesus said about millstones and those who hurt children?), this problem will in fact NEVER be solved.

  • This seems to be standard procedure (for institutions of all kinds, churches, governments, corporations), call a meeting or a hearing so you look like you are taking the issue seriously then do nothing that will seriously make a difference.

  • The Doyle report came out in 1985. 38 years ago. And that same year NCR began its coverage of sexual abuse of children by priests. In 2002 the Boston Globe exposed the cover-up by the hierarchy in Boston. 18 years ago. And in all that time all we have gotten from the Popes and the bishops is first a cover-up, and then talk, talk, talk, but never any walk. The three days in February will just be the final flush that sends the Church down the toilet.

  • “First, four days is much too short a time to deal with such an important and complicated issue.”

    With this agenda, yes.

    With a focus on solving problems, no.

    “Second, the expectations for this meeting are so high that it will be impossible to measure up.”

    What expectations? This is at least the tenth article I’ve read that pooh-poohed the meeting as a waste of time, window dressing, or a circling of the wagons.

    “Third, a strength of this meeting is that it will include presidents of episcopal conferences from all over the world.”

    Actually that’s a weakness. Episcopal conferences tend to elect folks like Theodore McCarrick. “Can do” bishop are too busy doing to waste time being a talking head.

    “This is in part because many Global South bishops have no idea how bad the problem is.”

    Why, oh why, have they not contacted Thomas Reese, S.J., to get the facts about what is going on in their own countries with their own priests and their own people?

    “Fourth, as far as can be seen at present, the meeting is not well-prepared.”

    Really? That seems to support the notion, then, that it is a waste of time, window dressing, and/or a circling of the wagons.

    “The preparatory committee does have a stellar cast: Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, and Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Gregorian University.”

    What could go wrong? One Francis toady (Cupich) and two Jesuits (Gracias and Zollner). One (Scicluna) out of four is as good as can be got?

    “Francis appears to believe that the current laws are sufficient but need to be enforced.”

    That was the position of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, then bishop in Lincoln, Nebraska, when the so-called “norms” were adopted. And Lincoln had zero lawsuits.

    What he called for was a set of regulations for dealing with folks like Theodore McCarrick and Rembert Weakland. He also wanted a study on the effect of homosexuals in the clergy. He got neither, and both were excellent ideas.

  • “But since the Vatican has shown that it understands almost nothing about sex, and …” you’ve shown you know almost nothing about the Catholic Church, it looks like a toss-up.

  • I disagree strongly that the expectations are “too high”.

    In the words of CS Lewis in a different context: “we desire too little”.

    It’s not too much to expect our priests to keep their zippers up and not perv the altar boys.

    And it’s not expecting too much from Pope Francis that in the face of a huge volume of data, that AFTER SIZE YEARS he could put in place actions to keep the priest’s and bishops zippers up, and have a set of controls in place to prevent, minimize occurences, and also a means to adjudicate swifly and soundly violations of this.

    We expect 10X from our presidents, but so little from Pope Francis.

    Mamby pamby articles from jesuits..I’ve had enough of.

  • You would have credibility if you addressed the content of my messages. Try starting with an explanation of how the bishops failed to report these FELONIES to civil authorities. Oddly, the bishops have always reported other felonies, such as theft from the church by priests.

  • “Oddly, the bishops have always reported other felonies, such as theft from the church by priests.”

    In fact … no.

    Nor have ALL the bishops failed to report abuse.

    As to why some of the bishops failed, problems arose in dioceses with bishops in one of three camps:

    – The Homosexual Clique composed of bishops like Theodore McCarrick, Rembert Weakland, and others. They were never supposed to have been ordained, they influenced seminaries to look the other way and ordain more homosexuals, and they were subject to defensive blackmail by offenders if they took action. They were a Fifth Column in the Church and did huge damage;

    – The Bureaucrats, made up of bishops like Donald Wuerl. They were all about self-aggrandization and power, and were “play the game” types whose primary goal was to get ahead and build loyal lieutenants to build and sustain their power base. Playing ball with the Homosexual Clique was just one more path to advancement and keeping abusers under wraps kept the checks coming in.

    – The Seven Times Seventy Crowd *, people like Bernard Francis Law, who failed to understand why Canon Law specified that abusers should be defrocked, dismissed, and reported. They were particular suckers for mind mavens who claimed to be able to “cure” pedophiles, which played into the Homosexual Clique’s hands perfectly.

    * – Matthew 18:21-22

  • Pandora’s box has been opened and now the “fems” (flaws, errors, muck and stench) of all religions are being laid bare and no Pope, priest, rabbi or imam will be able to stop it.

  • You don’t say…I suspect he is really ex-Pope Ratzinger.

    Why did you quit early, Benedict? You turned you job over to a frickin lefty Pope !!

  • While Mrs. Jane Nesbitt, Vladonald Trumputin, irondrake, Reason Over Religion, Elagabalus, CanisPulchrae, NoMoreBadTown, Rational Conclusions, peepsqueek, Vlacka2, Alexandra, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, are REAL PERSONS AND WE KNOW IT??

    At your earliest convenience buy (a) a life and (b) a functioning cerebrum with appropriate accouterments.

    Well, you’re back to blocked.

  • Obviously, I can’t say whether ALL bishops failed to report abuse.

    But we do know a few things:

    1. I am 99% certain that until very recently, it was official, written church policy that abuse by priests should NOT be reported to civil authorities. I will check further on this.

    2. it is simply indisputable that it was common practice for bishops to re-assign abusive priests without informing their old or new congregations of details.

    3. It is also indisputably true that there have been quite a few cases of bishops turning in priests suspected of stealing money. What percentage? I have no idea; nor am I saying this is common behavior by priests.

  • I know. Still, it’s good to see whoever that really is, making silly statements and further revealing illegal, etc stuff. .

  • You might have credibility if you provided a bit of support for your assertions.

    “Obviously, I can’t say whether ALL bishops failed to report abuse.”

    “1. I am 99% certain that until very recently, it was official, written church policy that abuse by priests should NOT be reported to civil authorities.”

    Your deep-seated belief based on nothing but your animus towards Catholicism does not rise to the level of a fact.

    Canon Law prohibited and prohibits the commission of crimes by bishops to subvert justice, which a bishop is required to ensure.

    http://canonlawmadeeasy.com/2018/09/27/sex-abuse-scandals-transparency-and-the-right-to-a-good-reputation/

    “2. it is simply indisputable that it was common practice for bishops to re-assign abusive priests without informing their old or new congregations of details.”

    You asked.

    You got a response:

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/5_reasons_the_popes_sex_abuse_meeting_in_rome_will_fail/#comment-4291113054

    You don’t even acknowledge it.

    “It is also indisputably true that there have been quite a few cases of bishops turning in priests suspected of stealing money. What percentage? I have no idea; nor am I saying this is common behavior by priests.”

    That’s quite different than:

    “…. the bishops have always reported other felonies, such as theft from the church by priests.”

    Bottom line: you have no idea at all. You have a hatred and an opinion.

  • While your silly posts provide an excellent opportunity to point out that you need more than hatred for an institution to support a frontal assault.

  • Alternative view, from a very flawed source: “All religion is a foolish answer to a foolish question.” Tommy Shelby, OBE

  • Are you saying that the Catholic church is incapable of selecting virtuous and wise bishops, that there is no guidance from the Holy Spirit, there is only human self-interest at work?

  • Re: “His goal, then, will be to get the bishops on board, not come up with new solutions. This is important, but it will not satisfy those wanting accountability structures to punish bishops who do not do their jobs.” 

    Did anyone expect anything else? It’s one thing for the hierarchs to throw the occasional abusing priest under the bus, as it were, and at least try to make examples of those few. It’s quite another for them to admit their complicity in having allowed them to do what they did, such as shuffling priests around to keep them one step ahead of the law, or to concede there was more abuse going on than they’re willing to lay claim to. 

    To a large extent, the R.C. Church is not a top-down monolithic entity. It is, instead, a collective of what amount to somewhat-autonomous princes — the bishops and heads of the clerical orders. It’s technically possible for the Pope to issue orders and, basically, ram them down the hierarchs’ throats, because they’ve all taken vows of obedience (just like all the other clerics under them) and they’d have to obey, but they all have their own unique, localized power-bases, and both canon law and Church tradition grant them a great deal of leeway. 

    It appears Pope Francis is giving in to this institutional inertia. He prefers to cajole the hierarchs into changing their ways, instead of ordering them to. If a decade or more of repeated scandals haven’t already convinced them they should change, they’re not going to be convinced by a little bit of papal begging. 

    So yeah, this whole escapade will be a useless exercise — except for any hierarchs who choose to come back from it and trumpet their involvement in it, as though that actually means anything (and it certainly won’t). 

  • The author almost panders to the present Pope. The meeting will fail because of him and not despite his intentions. He is exactly the top down manager who proffers collegiality as cover of authority. The last several Vatican synods have proven beyond doubt that the papal agenda is set before the meeting takes place and the gullible participants are led to approximate what the Pope or his handlers have preplanned. And in this case, the agenda has already included a determination to take the category of vulnerable adult off the minor abuse table. This is the only way to protect the hierarchy from the crimes of cover up and sexual exploitation by its many members.

  • “After all, my faith is based on someone who rose from the dead.” Yep. It’s not just Francis and the Bishops, it’s the Holy Spirit. The outcome may not be what the media expects, but something will be done. I think perhaps the media elite is getting a little nervous about just what that might be. The Resurrection was unexpected.

  • Problem is, with the PA report, is that very few were charged with felonies. One priest, in particular was totally acquitted legally. It was impossible that he abused the child, according to evidence and testimony. But it was deemed credible that the poor victim had been abused by somebody. So this priest continues out of ministry.

  • No Easter and therefore no RCC- The Great Kibosh of All Religions Rules in the 21st century:

    ., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingie thingie” visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immaculate conceptions).

  • No.

    I read my comment again and it said nothing of that sort.

    You must have responded to the wrong comment.

  • I think you are.
    I think you have multiple personas here – otherwise you wouldn’t care about bob arnzen.

  • Francis is a 20th century Jesuit.

    He was disliked by the members of the Society in Argentina, where he earned the nickname “la Comadreja”, the Weasel, due to his say one thing / do another approach and his behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

    This, of course, has nothing at all to do with a supposed “protect(ing) the hierarchy from the crimes of cover up and sexual exploitation by its many members”.

  • Here’s your big opportunity!

    Here’s space for you to write every single thing you know about Catholicism:

    [ ]

    .

  • I think those who hate Her, gave the Church in PA until Christmas., after the Grand Jury Report. It didn’t implode.

  • The Synod will fail because the problem has already been misdiagnosed. Both the Pope and Cardinal Cupich have previously declared that the root cause of the problem is “clericalism” – a simultaneously laughable and insulting proposition. When you misdiagnose a problem, your solution will surely be wrong – and in this case, intentionally so.

    The Pope is a Jesuit, and Cupich is a former seminary rector. As a Jesuit, the Pope would know (as everyone else does) that his order is stacked top to bottom with gay priests and brothers. (Father Reese knows this, too.) It is THE most “gay friendly” order in the Church, followed closely by the various Franciscan orders. As a former rector, Cupich knows that his seminary, both the student body and faculty alike, was overwhelmingly gay.

    Since you cannot purge the seminaries and religious orders of all homosexuals – else there would be hardly anybody left, and since LGBT people are the new protected and most celebrated “class” in Western culture, they will have to lay down smoke cover for them in order to stay in favor with the cultural elites. They will denounce “pedophilia,” which only accounts for 5% of all sexual abuse cases in the Church, and decry “clericalism,” which they believe is mostly a conservative phenomenon, and declare “Mission Accomplished!” Oh, there will also be some draconian measures that will apply to priests and bishops post factum, but there will be nothing that really gets at the root of the problem.

    And the root of the problem is, that in order to hold the line on celibacy, they Church is willing to ordain thousands of mal-developed homosexual men, who are also pederasts, to supply the faithful with the sacraments. It is these men who are committing 80% of the sexual abuse. To impugn them would be to impugn the vast majority of priests, who thankfully, can restrain themselves from abusing teenage boys and young adult men.

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