After the Summit

Friends: With this column, Dr. Royal completes his coverage of the Vatican summit on “The Protection of Minors in the Church.” As he writes below, the real challenges for bishops all over the world begin now: “Reform of the kind we need – however much anger and frustration we are going to feel in the meantime – is going to be a long-term project in which we are all going to have to assume new responsibilities.” To catch up on all his reports from Rome, click here. Or go to EVENTS above and choose VATICAN ABUSE SUMMIT from the drop-down menu.

Great winds – the venti russi (“Russian Winds”) – blew through Rome the last day of the summit on the protection of minors. They knocked down branches and toppled trees, killing several people. Many Catholics around the world – to judge from my correspondents – were also hoping that some great winds or flaming fire from the Holy Spirit would sweep through the Vatican and, in Old Testament fashion, carry away the timeservers and corrupt prelates who have given us Theodore McCarrick and his ilk. But God sent no such extraordinary manifestations to the rescue. And though possibilities for reform now exist, they are modest and still fundamentally inadequate to facing some hard facts.

Reform of the kind we need – however much anger and frustration we are going to feel in the meantime – is going to be a long-term project in which we are all going to have to assume new responsibilities. All the more reason not to be swept away by emotions, but to maintain targeted, reasoned pressure on Rome and everywhere else in the Church. We’ve been told that stronger procedures, investigations, documents – maybe even files on McCarrick – are forthcoming. But we know how easy it is for such things to give the impression of action without really doing anything. They need sharp scrutiny for years to come. Priests and laity have succeeded in reforming Rome in the past, and we can do it again if we work at it.

But first, a candid reckoning of the last few days.

The summit suffered from self-inflicted weaknesses from the outset. To identify the main culprit as “abuse of power,” i.e., clericalism, was to adopt a Marxist understanding of the world as primarily constituted by power relations.

It’s also one of the logical results of ideological manipulation, however, carried out earlier by promoters of the sexual revolution. For decades, we were told that rape is not about sex but power (sex per se is always to be defended).

But if a priest beats up a young person, that’s violence – and abuse of power. When he rapes a young person, it’s violence and abuse of power, but also lust, pride, and the whole set of mortal sins. There’s little evidence that we use these categories and think like Catholics, even in the Church, anymore.

The pope gave closing remarks on Sunday. Every Catholic should read those carefully. (English version here) The first half describes child abuse of various kinds, not in the Church, but in global terms. What he said was, in its way, true: most abuse occurs in families, as well as in schools, sports organizations, etc. And, yes, there are children soldiers, children working in virtual slavery, children refugees, children exploited online and in sexual tourism – as he says – the list goes on and on.

But this again shifts the focus: this time from the Church to a “global problem.” Pope Francis cited reports of the World Health Organization and other groups – a sociological perspective. But we already have WHO and many institutions that work on those problems.

The Church has enough to do right now to police itself.

Was there no one to tell Pope Francis that his approach, at this specific moment, gives the impression – not of sophistication and the Church’s awareness of the state of the world – but that he and those around him aren’t sufficiently focused on their own responsibilities? And that he’s hardly in a position to lead a global crusade when he hasn’t even cleaned up his own house? Or that the most fervent Catholics pay attention to what he says, are not dumb, and know a distraction when they see one?


He outlined eight points. Forget points 7 and 8 – sexual tourism and digital sex. Both bad to be sure, but not the Church’s main business.

What of the other six? Here are excerpts from the first two:

  1. The protection of children. The primary goal of every measure must be to protect the little ones and prevent them from falling victim to any form of psychological and physical abuse. Consequently, a change of mentality is needed to combat a defensive and reactive approach to protecting the institution and to pursue, wholeheartedly and decisively, the good of the community by giving priority to the victims of abuse in every sense. [Emphasis added.]

  2. Impeccable seriousness. Here I would reaffirm that “the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.” [Emphasis in original.]

Okay, change attitude and hold everyone accountable. But the pope himself has at least two or three well-documented cases pending (Bishop Zanchetta and the school for the deaf in Argentina, in addition to questions about McCarrick and other higher ups) in which he failed to take action when abuse was brought to his attention.

Archbishop Viganò, in my judgment, went too far in places, but he called on the pope to give a good example by admitting his own mistakes. That would set a standard and show that he meant what he said in the passages above.

Pope Francis admitted he “was part of the problem” in the Chile fiasco last year. If he were now to take this (from point 3) seriously, it might do some good: “Self-accusation is the beginning of wisdom and bound to the holy fear of God: learning how to accuse ourselves, as individuals, as institutions, as a society. For we must not fall into the trap of blaming others, which is a step towards the ‘alibi’ that separates us from reality.”

The other points are the usual pledges of better formation in seminaries, further strengthening of guidelines in bishops’ conferences, and “accompaniment” of victims. Nothing wrong there – but nothing very earth shattering either.

And one large subject gets no mention.

Pope Francis has spoken out forcefully in the past about the problem of homosexuality in the clergy. He’s even gone so far as to suggest that if there’s the slightest suspicion that seminarians have unruly homosexual tendencies, bishops should not ordain them (which surprised the gay lobbies that earlier thought him a friend).

So was it dealing with the full truth of the current problem within the Church not even to mention the element of homosexual predation – to sidestep the greater problem, if we’re going to be quoting statistics – and by focusing on “minors,” making it appear that the problem is abuse of young children and not basically homosexual grooming?

And isn’t it undeniable at this point that there were and are “gay” networks of mutual cover-up, not least in Rome, even at the very highest levels?

The Vatican could have done something to regain trust last week and restore a degree of confidence in the leaders of the Church around the world. As I’ve mentioned here before, I believe there are some reforms now in play and a slight opening for bishops in various nations who want to do the right thing.

But the summit did not confront the more painful problems. And therefore has left numbers of Catholics in doubt whether Church leaders are willing to suffer the even more painful experiences needed to reach real solutions.


*Image: Vincenzo Pinto/pool photo via AP

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.