Many people – even many Catholics – who only follow Church matters vaguely, have been puzzled by the Vatican’s conspicuous lack of a sense of urgency about the sexual abuse crisis. Yes, there’s a “summit” on abuse that starts today, but only after months and with a program that looks very carefully stage-managed to keep the most troubling questions at a distance from the Vatican itself.
And it is strange, given that – as many in Rome are certainly aware – instantaneous communications in our digital world make the slow response look less like the Vatican’s usual leisurely procedures and much more like a desire not to know too much – or how high the problem may reach.
But it’s rapidly becoming impossible to keep the lid on. Just two days ago, for example, The Washington Post carried a story about a case in Argentina (available here) involving the abuse of minors at an institute for deaf children. An Italian priest, Nicola Corradi, was spiritual director there and later at a similar school in Italy, and along with others abused dozens of underage children for decades.
This story is not entirely new – there had been reports about abuse at the Argentinean school for several months. In many ways, it seemed to be just one more case of sexual exploitation of the vulnerable and a lack of Church oversight.
What is new, however, is quite shocking: “The Italian victims’ efforts to sound the alarm to church authorities began in 2008 and included mailing a list of accused priests to Francis in 2014 and physically handing him the list in 2015.” If the accusations are to be believed – and they seem quite credible on the basis of the Post’s investigative reporting – this means that the pope knew of the abuse of minors, at an Italian school under the supervision of the Vatican. And either he or those who, under his direction, should have acted, did essentially nothing.
That story has been widely circulated in America and victims in Argentina and Italy are now demanding justice – one has even begun a hunger strike. But if you think that it has caused much of a reaction in Italy or in Rome, you would be wrong. And that may be one reason why officials in the Vatican seem to continue to believe that they can manage the revelations that have come out and, no doubt, the others that we will see in the next few days. But they can’t.
It may be difficult for most American Catholics to believe, but there’s little interest about the abuse summit in Italy, or most of Europe, at the moment. The New York Times, in its bigoted anti-Catholicism, may run “news” stories intended to discredit the Church almost every day. But in a way, that’s a backhanded tribute to the fact that even the Times believes that the Church means something and is worth the trouble of attacking.
By contrast, you’d have to work hard to find news about the summit or the abuse crisis in Europe’s mainstream media. There’s been a little interest in a related story that just appeared about the Vatican’s rules about how to handle the children of wayward priests – 50,000 of them according to the Vatican itself. But about the global abuse crisis and the lack of response by figures from the pope on down, all but nothing.
[Late addition: Owing to time changes, this couldn’t be included in the original article, but the BBC, which takes an interest in Britain’s former colonies, is reporting that Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias also failed to act on allegations about abuse that were brought to him. Furthermore, Gracias is one of the four main organizers of the summit. And as is the case with Pope Francis, this did not happen in some distant past when policies were different but as recently as 2015.]
An Italian journalist who, though a serious Catholic, has worked at the very highest levels of the secular media here, told me the other day that most Italians are virtual “nihilists” (his term) when it comes to corruption in the Church. They believe that it’s always been that way and always will be. They don’t show anything like the anger and outrage – or simple surprise – that is common in places like America and, increasingly, Latin America.
Italian friends who know the Roman landscape well say that the gay lobby in the Vatican – and the Vatican more generally – continue to exercise a very effective, old-school-style control over Church-related news. And not only locally, but in some of the most prestigious news outlets in Italy.
Vatican officials have for some time made it clear that they believe that, by contrast, the American bishops mishandled the abuse crisis and let things get out of hand in the American press. They even occasionally give the impression that they – and perhaps the pope – think the American bishops are their enemies.
Neither charge is true. In fact, it would be truer to say that the bishops in America have a better – not perfect, but better – grip on the priestly abuse problem now than do bishops in any other country. (Holding bishops accountable, of course, is still unfinished business – and Rome hasn’t much helped with that.)
Their conflicts, such as they are, with Pope Francis mostly stem from the fact that – given constant media exposure, criminal investigations by civil authorities, and demands of justice for victims – they can’t count on media to ignore problems or a largely cynical laity to just go along, as in Europe. They need to act – and be seen to act.
And it’s not only in America that a storm is brewing. Abuse survivors from several continents met yesterday with the organizers of the summit – though not with the pope, a sore point among them. It’s hard to say whether their collective efforts will bring enough pressure to bear on the Vatican that it will break through the logjam. On the whole, you’d have to say: it appears not. But the victims are playing a prominent role now and are not going away.
To really address the problem would mean some painful moments of truth, such as we have experienced in the United States. Corruption this serious would, of course, require that some heads roll (not only McCarrick’s), in the Vatican and elsewhere, and that there be public acts of repentance. But the very general and broad program the organizers have published seems designed to make sure no one in the Vatican will need to lose much sleep.
I’ve been expecting for the last several weeks that there’s going to be some surprise announcement near the end of the summit, some striking move that will dominate news coverage creating the impression that some radical breakthrough has been achieved.
I don’t know exactly what that would be or whether it would be some real step forward or mere window dressing. But just as “synodality” materialized out of nowhere at the end of Synod on Youth, there is probably some plan in place to do something newsworthy to make it appear that the Vatican has turned a corner in dealing with abuse.
It’s had to believe that that will be really so or that it will convince the victims who have now assumed a public role in holding Church officials accountable at the very highest levels. But keep an eye on those victims. They will provide us with the best insights into what, if anything, has changed.