I’ve been on the road and much occupied the past two days; my first glance at the news about the Vatican’s request that our American bishops not vote on steps to resolve the abuse crisis came as I was boarding a plane. It’s been almost twenty-four hours since then, as I’m writing – and trying, on the move, to catch up with this odd development. Second thoughts may follow, but for now, I find it hard to believe that it’s not just a bad dream.
The Vatican knew for months that the bishops would deal with abuse at their regular Fall gathering. The pope asked them to cancel it and hold a spiritual retreat instead until the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world meet in February. It’s hard to say with any degree of precision what Pope Francis fears might happen at such a gathering.
We’re hearing vague claims that decisions by the American bishops might conflict with canon law. But when has this papacy ever been held up by law – or wanted bishops everywhere in the world to follow universal rules – when it really wanted to get something done?
Whatever the fear, to wait until the very day the meeting opened to request no voting take place is almost without precedent. For many Americans, sad to say, the pope has probably just confirmed what he was forced to admit in Chile: he’s part of the problem. That no one convinced him this move would be a public relations nightmare – and would cause more trouble than a frank discussion and voting (which he could always massage later anyway) – is a sign of where we are in the Church now.
I hope to get to Baltimore later today and take the temperature in person. But the news reports I’ve seen say Cardinal Cupich stood up while Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was expressing disappointment to say, “It is clear that the Holy See is taking the abuse crisis seriously.” Really? If it were that clear, it wouldn’t be necessary to say so.
Or to explain, as Cupich went on to do in remarks that had obviously been prepared ahead of time, why the assembled bishops should accept something clearly unacceptable, as it seems many of them immediately realized. His recommendation, which was clearly a signal from the pope himself, was to hold yet another meeting in March, after the meeting of presidents of bishops’ conferences in February. Survivors of abuse and organizations advocating for them were already not expecting much from this November meeting, which itself comes several months after the new revelations.
In Washington politics, this would be called kicking the can down the road, hoping it will become someone else’s problem – or get replaced with something in a couple of news cycles.
If “the Vatican” were “taking the abuse crisis seriously,” we would have tangible evidence by now. Some of Pope Francis’ defenders have pointed out that he is the only pope in modern times to have forced a cardinal (McCarrick) to resign. True, but only after the Archdiocese of New York determined that he had committed a crime in molesting an underage boy.
Under current policies in the American Church, that crime could not be concealed and had to be reported to civil authorities. Which essentially forced Rome’s hand. And McCarrick is, half a year later, still, inexplicably, a priest.
The other evidence we have about how serious Rome is about the abuse crisis runs in a very different direction. Last December, the Vatican simply allowed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to lapse. In one way, no great loss because – despite all the praise when it was created – the Commission did little. Several members had quit along the way in protest over inaction.
But to just let it lapse? It was reconstituted, months later, but no one has heard or seen anything from that body suggesting that it will play any role in resolving what is now a global crisis.
People in the English-speaking world will find this hard to believe, but much of the the media in Italy and parts of Europe follow the pope in lacking a sense of urgency about abuse. They seem unaware – or unwilling to see – that there is a crisis at all, other than a pattern of sinful behavior on the part of a number of priests and bishops.
If you talk with people in and around the Vatican, they tend to think America an aberration (conveniently forgetting similar trouble in Chile, Honduras, Ireland, Australia, Germany, Italy itself, the Vatican itself, and other countries). They say that our bishops have let this thing get blown out of proportion by mishandling it.
At one point Cardinal Maradiaga, the pope’s right-hand man in the Council of Cardinals (himself mixed up in sexual and financial scandals in Honduras) attributed the 2002 revelations in America to Jewish and Masonic influences in the American press that, he claimed, are seeking to destroy the Church. He apologized later – but that’s clearly what he, and no doubt others at the very highest levels of the Vatican, really think.
You can talk yourself blue in the face trying to explain to them the widespread, justified anger among the laity, and large numbers of priests and bishops as well. So far, the way Rome has been dealing with that news – as it has dealt with Archbishop Viganò’s claims – is not to deal with it at all. That leads people – even many faithful Catholics – to suspect – rightly or not – that there’s something fishy here that some very powerful people are trying to keep from coming to light.
You can try to blame this all on the slowness of Vatican bureaucracy, resentments among members of the hierarchy, dislike of the pope, the influence of Satan himself. But the simple fact is that people don’t want more talk, meetings, commissions. They want action. And truth.
Instead, what they see is that, even when our American bishops want to take some tentative first steps to deal with a difficult and urgent problem involving not only the protection of innocents but the moral credibility of the Church, Rome says: No, wait.