The End of a Beginning

Day Three, the last day of the summit on sexual abuse, followed the pattern established in the previous days. In the morning, there were two speakers: one laid out a kind of moral/spiritual case, and the other commented on a specific subject suggested by Pope Francis. So we’ve had Collegiality Day, Synodality Day, and now Transparency Day. But it will only be on some day or days still far in the future that we will know whether the modest possibilities now – and some have emerged – will amount to anything.

Sister Veronica Openibo SHJC, who is Superior General of her religious order, started the day with a series of criticisms that were both articulate and forceful. But for all the passion she showed about protecting children – and no disrespect to her given her assigned task – we can’t help feeling that we’ve heard all that before, if not so strongly put. She directed several pointed barbs towards the bishops and even seemed to – diplomatically – put the pope on the spot about adopting zero tolerance worldwide, which the Vatican has been resisting because of “cultural differences.”

It would be wonderful if some of those present in Rome or paying attention elsewhere felt shame at her indictment, and were then converted. That’s something to work and pray for. But we’ve seen – and it’s clear even from the way the summit has been structured – that the usual networks and suspects are more inclined to divert attention elsewhere. And maintain themselves, undisturbed.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, followed with the admission that, if it had been up to him, he would have chosen a somewhat different topic. But he had agreed to speak on what he too had been assigned, which is one of the summit shibboleths: transparency.

That was quite surprising for anyone who has been observing Marx’s heterodox moves in recent years, not least his recent announcement that the Church needs to rethink its teachings on sex. But what he had to say was, generally, very good, particularly his denunciations of the way files have been destroyed or never even created that would have allowed what he called “traceability.”

By that he meant that the important thing was not “transparency,” in the sense of everything in the Church being open – which is both impossible and unadvisable. Traceability means that there must be ways of following up cases when it’s determined they need investigating.

Instead, even in many places where proper procedures are in place, “The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offences were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden.”

When Archbishop Viganò issued his first testimony, he was hammered by many people for having offended against his vow to keep information private under the category of the “pontifical secret.” Without mentioning Viganò, Marx conceded that all kinds of information need to be held in confidence in a Church that is as large as the world. But at the same time he contended, sharply, that he couldn’t think of circumstances in which it would be proper to invoke the pontifical secret in a case of sexual abuse.


Some people have since criticized him for confusing the oath Churchmen take to keep certain transactions confidential (the pontifical secret) with the proper respect for the rights of accusers and accused not to have their names revealed until and unless it’s warranted (investigative secret).

Error or not, it was good that a highly placed cardinal denied that any credible accusation of abuse can be hidden forever under any category.

Marx emphasized strongly, citing St. Robert Bellarmine, that it’s wrong to think of administrative rules as somehow opposed to the kind of personal care of souls that is the Church’s mission. The rules actually are an important way to serve the people, just as service of the people is the inspiration for the development of rules. People mock the German love of rules and procedures, he joked, but rules are good for many reasons; they guide us when we are uncertain, help with forgetfulness, and keep us from having to be perpetually reinventing things that are properly settled.

Later in the day, Archbishop Charles Scicluna – who has been the Church’s sharpest investigator of difficult cases all around the world – added that there’s no need to burden the investigative processes with “top-heavy ancient” procedures of confidentiality “which has been the butt of so many jokes” about the Vatican.

Some procedures, he said, clearly need revision. As things stand, for example, accusers have the right to bring complaints. But the Church does not routinely inform them about the ultimate disposition of their cases. A wayward priest may be found guilty or innocent, but the person who lodged the initial complaint is not automatically informed.

For that and many other reasons, the vademecum – the basic manual for how to handle abuse cases from beginning to end – which appeared as the very first of Pope Francis’ “21 Points for Reflection” the other day, is essential. Scicluna claims to have already seen a draft of that document and expects it will be released shortly. In principle, bishops’ conferences and individual bishops will now have a basic guide that they may further adapt to their circumstances.

As everyone knew going in, this event is the beginning, not the end, of what must be a much bigger and longer process. And despite much frustration about the repetition of platitudes that everyone already agrees about – and the virtual banning of discussion about crucial subjects like homosexuality – there does now seem to be some real if modest space for bishops and bishops’ conferences to act.

(The Holy Father will be offering the concluding Mass this morning and a final discourse. There will also be a brief post-Summit session Monday morning. We’ll be watching the final developments and then traveling tomorrow, so a final report will appear on this page, probably on Tuesday.)


*Image: A State Secret by John Pettie, 1874 [Royal Holloway, University of London, England]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.