Pope Francis is pictured during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 13. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: Francis takes the lead

  • February 14, 2019

The much-anticipated Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse of minors is still days away but perhaps the strongest declaration to be expected from this unprecedented gathering of bishops has already been made.

It comes in the form of a bold statement represented by the decision of Pope Francis to be front and centre throughout the meeting. Rather than attend selected sessions, which is typical papal practice at meetings of bishops, Francis has cleared his calendar to join every sitting of the three-day summit.

This is significant because, whether he likes it or not, Pope Francis is assuming direct ownership of a file that has stirred a lot more talk than action as it bounced around the Vatican bureaucracy for two decades. Politicians know the benefit of keeping a buffer between them and potential scandal. It is always risky to become “the face” of a controversy. Yet that is exactly what  Francis is doing.

His actions are a show of leadership and an indication of someone who is at his wits’ end. The past year has been a true horror show as hundreds of priests, plus some bishops and even cardinals have been accused of either sexually assaulting minors or covering up crimes that often date back decades.

There can be no firmer declaration that Pope Francis has had enough than for him to become personally invested in this meeting. Entrusting the Vatican bureaucracy the task of crafting solutions and initiating the repair of a deeply damaged Church has failed miserably. It didn’t work for Pope Benedict XVI and it has brought Francis only misery and embarrassment. 

So beginning on Feb. 21, the Pope will take the matter directly to the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world. But that doesn’t mean the meeting will end with any grand announcements or significant policy changes. It took decades for the Church to dig this dark hole; it won’t climb out in three days.

In some respects, the Pope seems to be going back to square one. A significant part of the meeting will involve bishops hearing the pain-filled stories of abuse victims. Francis hopes to impress upon bishops the need to establish rigid guidelines that create safe environments for minors, care for victims and eliminate the scourge of coverup.

These won’t be pleasant days. By so very publicly calling this meeting, the Pope has all but invited the world’s media to pick some more at a festering wound. But that’s OK. It could be argued the painful scrutiny is deserved.

The Vatican has offered several apologies and launched various initiatives over the years, but as an institution gummed up by the molasses of bureaucracy the Church has failed to completely and authentically confront the abuse crisis. 

The Church needs this meeting, with Pope Francis as its face, to become the spark that ignites a genuine consensus for change.

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