Even before it opened, many people were dismissing the summit on the Protection of Minors as a diversion intended – more accurately – for the Protection of the Higher Ups, in the Vatican and elsewhere in the hierarchy. And it would be difficult to deny that one of the crucial sides of the abuse crisis, namely holding bishops and Church leaders accountable, has been insulated from the actual proceedings – with the weak excuse that, though important, it would dilute the focus on minors, who are the most vulnerable.
Victims groups have been particularly outspoken that the whole event seems more of a PR campaign than anything intended to lead to change. And it’s true that, in addition to a cautiously crafted program and a well co-ordinated effort to exclude every mention of homosexuality, information is being more closely controlled than at events in the recent pasts. Participants have been told not to give interviews, not to hold press conferences, and to refer requests for comment to the Vatican Press Office first.
So it’s not surprising that there have already been public protests and others are scheduled over the next few days. But even a PR campaign tells you something about what people would like the public to believe and, therefore, should not be entirely ignored, or dismissed too quickly.
Besides, there has already been one concrete development – “concrete” being a word that the pope and others use often at the summit. Concrete, at least in theory. We now have “21 points for reflection” that the pope and the organizers gleaned from the various bishops’ conferences and commissions involved in the abuse crisis (available in English here).
The very first point calls for the development of a vademecum, a kind of guidebook that outlines all the steps that relevant authorities need to carry out at every key moment when a case arises. There was notable laughter in the day’s briefing when a journalist asked whether these “points” were really “for reflection” or a series of papal commands.
Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the most trustworthy investigators of multiple cases in several countries, didn’t answer that question. But he pointed out how useful a comprehensive manual would be for everyone, especially in the numerous places around the world where the local Church does not have many resources or lay experts.
A standard global guide to handling abuse cases does not answer questions left hanging when the pope asked the American bishops not to proceed on their own in their annual meeting last November. In light of the global need, however, it’s a pretty good idea.
And there are several others among the 21points, though the central problem has never been a lack of ideas or proven procedures. The problem has been real implementation, which seems to bog down the minute the interests of influential parties are at stake.
So it’s good that there points spelling out how both accusers and accused would be treated fairly, and specific ways that both Church and civil authorities should be involved and co-operating when there’s a credible case. It’s noteworthy, however, that one of the goals, stated but not elaborated on further, recommends: “Establishing specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops.” Given the way the summit is organized, just about the most we can hope for is that it results in bishops’ conferences being allowed to develop effective procedures like the ones the American bishops were prepared to approve.
There is admirable concern that justice be done – and lay experts be tapped to help – but also that there be a further and constant Christian concern for genuine healing, forgiveness, charity – the Church’s mission even amidst the horrors of abuse of minors. This will clearly require a new kind of formation for bishops, priests, heads of religious orders, ecclesial communities to make them more aware of how abuses occur and ways to manage them in ways that are pastoral and not only administrative.
There are several places that call for better human formation in seminaries and religious orders, psychological evaluations, and clearer guidelines about the problematic transferring of personnel from one place to another, even diocese to diocese. And the whole closes with a call for creating “organisms” for receiving accusations that are of easy access by victims, and that are composed of lay and clerical experts who are independent of the relevant local authorities, which is to say, the bishop.
On paper, this is a well thought through set of recommendations. But as we’ve seen multiple times, policies that have real teeth are regularly ignored or circumvented when they threaten to bite influential figures.
So far, little else has emerged signaling a new direction. The plenary sessions yesterday were mercifully brief, under a half-hour each, with another 15 minutes or so of discussion that was not public. The format is similar to recent synods in that there are also smaller “working groups,” two per day organized by languages, in which the bishops will have much more time to talk over what they’ve heard and there own concerns.
The Holy Father made very brief remarks at the beginning of the day, asking as he has done in the past for boldness of speech (parrhesia), which he translated as meaning both courage and “concreteness.”
The main sessions were rather predictable. Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines led off with a spiritual reflection about how we cannot really call ourselves believers unless we touch the wounds of Christ (like “Doubting Thomas”) in the woundedness and sufferings of the people – in this case abuse victims. Bishops and priests need to undergo a process of conversion and find the courage, he said, to remain with the flock even when the stench of corruption makes them want to flee.
Tagle is famous for crying during presentations in the Vatican and he broke down at one point when speaking about the suffering of innocents. He has apparently been working with a whole group of academic experts in the Philippines on “forgiveness,” and emphasized that both justice and forgiveness have to be achieved in cases of abuse. And forgiveness does not and cannot mean telling victims and their families simply to forget and move on, but to see forgiveness as part of their own deeper healing and a potential contribution even to the rehabilitation of perpetrators.
All in all, a useful reflection, but much of it already known to the assembled bishops.
The second morning session was quite different. Archbishop Scicluna went through the full range of practical steps that local ordinaries (bishops) need to take in their own dioceses – and he emphasized that they as well as everyone in the Church must take responsibility now. He described in detail – he’s conducted several successful probes for the Vatican – how dioceses need to set up easy reporting systems, orderly processes for handling charges, and panels of experts , sometimes with backgrounds in law enforcement, to carry out the process. And bishops, he emphasized, once they have a system in place, should let it run – not interfere with an objective and orderly process.
As we know, local bishops and even the pope himself have gotten into trouble precisely when they haven’t let proper authorities do their jobs.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Scicluna’s presentation was his repeated references to Benedict XVI’s 2010 letter to the Irish bishops in which he laid out a path forward. Tagle took his bearing from the writings of Pope Francis. Scicluna cited Benedict, almost too exclusively, perhaps a sign of things to come.
Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge mentioned at the briefing that, unlike earlier synods he’s taken part in, there was a restless energy in the room before proceedings began today – like a horse pawing the ground eager to start running. Many of the participants seem genuinely keen to do something about the abuse problem.
The question remains whether the rules they are operating under over these few days will allow that to happen.
*[CNS photo/Vatican Media]