Pope Francis is seen Feb. 22, 2019, the second day of the Vatican meeting on the protection of minors. CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters

Editorial: The work begins

  • February 28, 2019

The remarkable summit on sex abuse has ended but its work is far from done.

What took place over four days in the Vatican was an extraordinary example of the Church admitting guilt, asking forgiveness and proposing remedies. But it would be a mistake to regard what happened as anything more than a first step. An important step, yes, but let no one kid themselves into believing this journey is anywhere close to being complete.

There was little said over these dramatic days that had not been said in some form or another over the past decade or more. What was new, however, was a long-overdue air of seriousness and authenticity as the Pope summoned 190 Church leaders and, in a quasi-public forum, made it clear that this scandal belonged to all of them and all of them were responsible for fixing it. This should have happened years ago.

But although Pope Francis should be commended for ordering this meeting and although it was conducted with no glaring missteps, there is no cause for joy. The thousands of cases of sexual abuse of minors and the coverups by Church leaders have been a shameful episode that has inflicted immeasurable harm on victims and severe damage to the moral authority of the Church. That ongoing shame must be the main takeaway whenever this topic is discussed.

And the entire four days will be for naught if the coming weeks and months fail to produce stringent and mandatory measures to be implemented by the Church worldwide. This task must fall to the Pope. 

The cardinals and bishops of the Roman Curia have been consistently unwilling or incapable of implementing meaningful change. The Pope convened this meeting and now it is up to him to finish the job.

The moderator of the summit, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, indicated several initiatives are in the works. One of these will be the publication of guidelines for bishops that will underline a mandatory requirement to implement prevention measures and response procedures. Another will see the creation of “task forces” available to dioceses around the world to help bishops who may lack the resources to confront the issue independently. The Pope also intends to issue new laws governing child protection in the Vatican State that will be a model for bishops to follow around the world.

These are all commendable measures but they will be insufficient if unaccompanied by explicit procedures that hold bishops and cardinals accountable for committing crimes or covering them up. In October, the Pope derailed plans by American bishops to do just that, asking them to defer the matter until after the summit. Failing to address that issue now would leave any other plans to combat abuse incomplete.

The Pope succeeded in getting the world’s attention at his landmark summit. Now the real work begins.

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