February is not high tourist season in Rome. Skies are gray and temperatures low. St. Peter’s Square is relatively empty. But journalists filled the nearby Press Office earlier this week – more, according to one veteran, than since the death of St. John Paul II –because of the summit on the sex abuse crisis, which begins this evening with meetings between abuse survivors and participants, and continues Thursday through Saturday with formal sessions, parts of which will be streamed on the Vatican website. A video of the opening press briefing with remarks by Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop Scicluna, and other key figures is available by clicking here.
To be frank, it’s hard to say why so many journalists are here since no one, including Church spokesmen, expects that anything very dramatic will happen over the next few days – at least not in the formal sessions. What happens outside and around them, however, may be a different matter.
When the summit was announced last September, partly because of papal missteps in handling abuse cases in Chile, it seemed that the Church was going to take some large steps forward. There have been many smaller steps for years in many places around the world, everything from easier reporting mechanisms to better human formation in seminaries to the unprecedented laicization last weekend of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Expectations ran high, not least because the Holy Father asked the American bishops, during their annual November meeting, not to vote on ways to hold bishops accountable – whether they are abusers themselves, like McCarrick, or covered up abuse by people under their authority. They were told to wait until a uniform approach could be developed in February when many of the presidents of bishops’ conferences and heads of religious orders would gather together in Rome.
But Vatican spokesmen have more recently been encouraging people to lower expectations; and the focus this week is quite different: “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” That, of course, is a worthy goal. In many parts of the Catholic world, rules are in place, but there hasn’t been serious follow through. If the next few days bring proven practices to new places, that will be all to the good.
But it’s also much less than we were hoping for. And in America, we’ve already come a long way towards responding to the part of the abuse crisis that involves priests. We have been expecting – and had been told – that the next phase would be figuring out how to hold bishops accountable. That’s been a continuing problem, not only in America, but in Chile, Honduras, Australia, Europe, the pope’s own Argentina, and the Vatican itself.
People are happy that McCarrick has been expelled from the priesthood, for example, but they want to know how it was possible for a man widely rumored to be an abuser to have moved up in the hierarchy and eventually become cardinal-archbishop of the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. Three popes and dozens of Vatican officials are now part of the story. Pope Francis has promised an investigation into the files. It’s almost a year later and we’ve heard nothing of that, not even whether there’s an active inquiry underway.
Meanwhile, a new book, which will be officially released Thursday, the first day of the summit here in Rome, claims that 80 percent of the upper echelons of the Vatican are gay. Some remain celibate, others act out in various ways, but they form what, in local parlance, is called “the Parish,” a network of people who either cover for one another or, given their own inclinations, look the other way.
Or at least that’s what Frederic Martel, the author, says. Martel is a gay activist in France and his motives in publishing this book at this particular moment are suspect – as are some of his wilder claims. But he seems to have conducted thousands of interviews with various figures from high-placed Cardinals to Swiss Guards, and quotes some by name.
The excerpts that have appeared so far raise as many questions as they answer. But the whole matter of the gay presence in the Church and its role as an enabler – which the summit organizers are avoiding, indeed are denying is a factor – will not go away.
Martel says (and there’s no reason to doubt it since there have been no denials forthcoming) that his access to the Vatican was facilitated by Msgr. Battista Ricca, who is Director of the Papal Residence (i.e., Casa Santa Marta) and an official with the Vatican Bank. Ricca was widely known to have had a boyfriend or two when he was a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay. And he was caught in an elevator with a boy prostitute.
It was in response to a reporter’s question about his past on the plane returning from World Youth Day in 2013 that Pope Francis famously remarked, ““If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
But it’s partly the pope’s judgment in such matters that has raised further questions. Not only the bishop he wrongly defended in Chile, but even recent appointments like that of Gustavo Zanchetta – a bishop accused of abusing seminarians in Argentina and a friend of the pope’s – to a specially created post at one of the Vatican financial institutions. He had to be removed while investigations are going on.
And then there’s the recent naming of Irish-American Cardinal Kevin Farrell to the position of camerlengo, the official who declares the pope officially dead and then runs the Vatican, with limited powers, during the interregnum, the period between the death of one pope and the election of another.
Farrell lived for six years in the same residence with then-Cardinal McCarrick and claimed – to widespread skepticism – that he had no knowledge of, had never even heard rumors about, McCarrick’s outrages. It’s curious that the pope would pick a potentially questionable figure for such a sensitive post.
All of this suggests that what goes on in the synod hall this week is the merest beginning to what will continue to be a large and troubling process. More on all that in coming days.
*Image: Pope Francis by Will Oliver/EPA-EFE