The Vatican gets religion on fighting abuse

by John L. Allen Jr.

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I've been covering the "Toward Healing and Renewal" symposium this week, a major international summit on the sexual abuse crisis organized by Rome's Jesuit-run Gregorian University and co-sponsored by several Vatican departments. It brought together roughly 100 bishops and religious superiors from around the world ahead of a May deadline from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for bishops' conferences to submit their anti-abuse policies for review.

Although much of what's been said was familiar to people who have been living with the crisis for the last decade, the idea was to share this experience with the rest of the Catholic world, especially places where the sexual abuse crisis has not yet exploded, in the hope that for once, church leaders can defuse the bomb before it goes off.

I've been filing stories along the way, and I won't rehash that material here; links to everything are below. Instead, I'll lay out the big picture to emerge from the summit, which I would express this way: The Vatican has gotten religion on the sexual abuse crisis.

When the scandals in the United States broke a decade ago, reaction in the Vatican was clearly divided between what one might loosely call the "reformers" and the "deniers." What seems indisputable in the wake of this week's event, though it was by no means preordained 10 years ago, is that the reformers now have the upper hand.

To be sure, "reform" by Vatican standards is far removed from the root-and-branch overhaul extolled by some critics. It's not about deconstructing the hierarchical nature of the church, abrogating the Vatican's status as a sovereign state, eliminating celibacy, ordaining women or rewriting Catholic sexual morality; those things were never in the cards.

Instead, the fault lines in the Vatican a decade ago broke down in terms of these sorts of debates:

  • Is the crisis largely a media- and lawyer-driven frenzy, or is it a real cancer?
  • Should the church cooperate fully with civil authorities, including police and prosecutors, or is that surrendering the autonomy the church has fought titanic battles over the centuries to defend?
  • Should the church embrace the use of psychology in screening candidates for the priesthood, or is that smuggling in a secular mentality in place of traditional spiritual principles of formation?
  • Should the church support aggressive programs of abuse prevention and detection, or does that risk "sexualizing" children along the lines of secular sex education?
  • Is the crisis truly a global phenomenon, or is it the fruit of a "moral panic" largely restricted to the West?
  • Should the Vatican sign off on "zero-tolerance" policies, or does that rupture the paternal relationship that's supposed to exist between a bishop and his priests?

Back then it was a jump ball which answers would prevail, and it's not at all clear the smart money would have been on the reform position.

In a sense, the outcome was probably written in the stars when the champion of reform during the late John Paul years, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope in 2005. What this week's summit shows, however, is just how thoroughly it's become received Vatican wisdom.

We saw Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican's powerful Congregation for Bishops, presiding over a liturgy of repentance -- effectively symbolizing that the crisis isn't just about wayward priests, but it includes failures by the hierarchy. We heard American Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concede that much of what's been accomplished to date is due to media pressure, insisting on a "more proactive" approach.

Pope Benedict XVI dispatched a message to the symposium, endorsing the effort to build "a vigorous culture of effective safeguarding and victim support."

The Vatican's top sex abuse prosecutor, Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna, bluntly said it is "not acceptable" for bishops to ignore anti-abuse protocols and openly called for imposing sanctions under church law on those bishops who drop the ball. By affording a platform to the architects of groundbreaking abuse prevention and detection programs such as "Protecting God's Children" in the United States, the summit effectively extolled such programs as global models.

The deniers, of course, have not gone away. Some Vatican personnel privately grumbled this week that the entire sex abuse summit was a bad idea because all it accomplished was reviving a negative storyline for the church. The difference between 10 years ago and today, however, is that the deniers have been largely driven underground, and it's the reformers who set the tone.

The Vatican has an unparalleled knack for rewriting history, pretending that the complex result of a bruising internal fight has always been its fixed position. Before long, it may be hard to remember that there was ever a time when Vatican personnel weren't saying and doing these kinds of things -- but there was, and not so long ago.

To be sure, simply changing the tune in Rome doesn't automatically transform the church on the ground.

Just this week, veteran journalist Jonathan Luxmoore published a piece in the National Catholic Reporter out of Poland, featuring the story of a Polish bishop who reassigned a priest even after he had been criminally convicted of abusing a young girl. In the United States, retired Cardinal Edward Egan of New York recently gave an interview in which he appeared to retract an earlier apology for the crisis and to cast doubt on the church's obligation to report abuse claims.

As Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany, put it Thursday in what amounts to a great candidate for the understatement of recent Catholic life: "The work of dealing with the abuse crisis is far from over."

Yet over time, once the Vatican gets into a full, upright and locked position on an issue, it generally does spur bishops and other church leaders around the world into action.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a former director of the St. Luke's Institute in Silver Spring, Md., offered a sober, but ultimately optimistic, assessment of what this evolution portends.

The Catholic church moves slowly, he said, and for those who have suffered and who continue to suffer as a result of the church's failures, that's a "sad state of affairs." Yet once the church turns a corner, Rossetti argued, its momentum is basically irresistible.

"When the church finally gets it, and I think it's starting to get it, it will be a powerful force for change."

* * *

On the subject of things that came into sharper focus this week, it seems increasingly clear that the next frontier for reformers is likely to be episcopal accountability, meaning discipline for bishops who fail to implement policies on fighting abuse.

Hints of movement have been in the air. In recent months, I've done on-the-record interviews with some of the biggest names in the American bishops' conference, including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, all of whom said they would support new mechanisms to hold bishops accountable.

Their position reflects a basic truth: Nobody is more frustrated when a high-profile breakdown occurs, such as those in the United States in both Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., than bishops who have worked hard to get things right. They know that such a failure in one place calls into question the integrity of everybody's efforts, including their own.

That note was struck again in an interview this week with Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., who chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. He called the debate over accountability "a legitimate question, and a legitimate concern," adding that some new mechanism to ride herd on bishops "may be a step that has to be taken."

The summit got a reminder of how visceral the issue is in remarks by laywoman Marie Collins of Ireland, the only victim to address the gathering.

"Apologizing for the actions of the abusive priests is not enough," she said. "There must be acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims and their families by the often deliberate cover up and mishandling of cases by their superiors, before I or other victims can find real peace and healing."

Equally strong language came from inside the Vatican itself, in the form of remarks by Sciculna to reporters.

Scicluna bluntly said it is simply "not acceptable" for bishops to ignore anti-abuse protocols established by the Vatican or by their bishops' conference. He said the church in Ireland, to take one example, "has paid a very high price for the mistakes of some of its shepherds."

Scicluna said there are already provisions in church law to sanction bishops for "negligence and malice in exercising one's duties," suggesting this provision should be more strenuously applied. (He appeared to be referring to canon 128 of the Code of Canon Law, which reads: "Whoever illegitimately inflicts damage upon someone by a juridic act or by any other act placed with malice or negligence is obliged to repair the damage inflicted.")

Scicluna also noted that when canon law specifies penalties that can be imposed on "clergy," that includes bishops as well as priests and deacons -- though, he said, the fact it applies to bishops too is sometimes "ignored."

"Ecclesial accountability has to be further developed," he said. "I agree with you on that."

Merely talking about accountability, of course, doesn't do the trick. It has to be enforced, and it remains to be seen if the canonical sanctions to which Scicluna referred will be wielded in some visible, effective fashion.

Yet in Catholic affairs, the capacity to say out loud that something is possible is often the first step to actually doing it. With regard to greater episcopal accountability, it seems safe to say that rhetorical corner has been turned.

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR's senior correspondent. His email address is]

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