After a year of scandal upon scandal, Pope Francis will be front and centre when the heads of the conferences of bishops are in Rome Feb. 21-24 to address clerical sexual abuse and safeguarding minors. CNS photo

Doing the right thing: Abuse summit aims to put the world’s bishops on the same page

  • February 13, 2019

Ever since Pope Francis announced in September that he was calling the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences to Rome for an unprecedented summit on sexual abuse, expectations have been mounting.

He called for the summit as the Church was reeling from several abuse scandals that had implicated priests, bishops and even cardinals. Nine months into 2018, it was already a horrible year for the Church and it would get worse. More than just a Pennsylvania grand jury report on 70 years of clerical abuse and cover-ups, or lurid tales of sexual predation by former Washington Archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, or having every single bishop in Chile tender his resignation — beyond these ghastly headlines was a relentless drip of revelations of abuse, negligence and concealment. 

Then in November the Pope instructed the American bishops to postpone a vote on stringent new abuse protocols that included creation of a phone line to report misconduct by bishops. He wanted them to wait until the abuse crisis was discussed by bishops from around the world. His intervention further fuelled anticipation of major developments when the three-day summit convenes Feb. 21 in the Vatican.

But as the date approaches, the Vatican has been trying to dampen anticipation.

“I’ve perceived a bit of an inflated expectation,” Pope Francis told reporters on the plane as he returned to Rome Jan. 26 from World Youth Day in Panama. “We need to deflate the expectations.”

That doesn’t mean the Pope is having second thoughts about his own summit. But his ambitions differ from the thousands of Catholics worldwide who may be expecting dramatic announcements or the immediate imposition of new measures to combat abuse.

About 200 people will participate in the summit, all of them with responsibility for governing the Church in particular countries or in the context of religious life. They will include presidents of national conferences of bishops, such as Canada’s Bishop Lionel Gendron, representatives of religious orders, patriarchs of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches and Vatican officials with direct responsibility for abuse issues. 


The Pope is expected to attend the entire meeting, although it will be chaired by Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi. He has watched the abuse crisis unfold while serving  as the official spokesperson for Pope Benedict XVI and, until 2016, Pope Francis.

Bishop Ronald Fabbro of London, Ont., won’t attend the summit. But the Canadian abuse policy he spent years crafting and which was adopted last September by a unanimous vote of his fellow bishops, will be. The CCCB guidelines on abuse have been circulating in the Vatican and Lombardi has held them up as a model to the world.

Fabbro believes in Pope Francis’s summit.

“Personally, I am hopeful,” he said. “Maybe even more than that, I have some confidence that there’s going to be good things come out of this meeting.”

Meeting with victims is key, Fabbro said. It means the abuse summit will follow the same trajectory Fabbro followed as he dealt with abuse in his own diocese and then helped shaped the new Canadian document.

“It started off for me with a meeting, offering to meet, with the survivors and their families,” he said. “I had a number of them come and meet with me and talk about their pain. That was really … it changed me as a bishop and as a person.”

Though the sessions will be behind closed doors and no agenda has been published, the Vatican has emphasized that bishops will meet and hear from victims of abuse. Such encounters are common for Canadian bishops, but they are not common in Africa, Asia, Latin America or even parts of eastern Europe. 

The Pope told reporters on the plane that not all bishops are equally aware of “the tragedy” of child abuse. So the victim testimonies are crucial. The Pope wants bishops to hear directly from those who have suffered or continue to suffer.

“I regularly receive abused people…. It’s terrible, the suffering is terrible,” Pope Francis said.

Getting procedures and protocols in place in every part of the world is all about clarity for Pope Francis.

“What the bishop must do, what the archbishop, who is the metropolitan, must do, what the president of the episcopal conference must do — it must be clear,” he said.

The end-point, however, is not a set of rules. The third item of Pope Francis’ agenda for the summit is a penitential liturgy, “to ask forgiveness for the whole Church,” he said.

To understand the Pope’s thinking, it’s useful to remember Pope Francis thinks in Spanish. He isn’t thinking about sexual abuse. The problem is abuso sexual. The word order in Spanish matters. In the Pope’s mind the abuse comes first. Sex is the way in which the abuse is perpetrated. The fundamental problem and the overriding reality to be confronted is abuse.

He also has another word for abuse — clericalismo. If that sounds like a word constructed along the lines of machismo, well it is. The root of the problem is power.

And Francis seems to believe it won’t be fixed simply by another exercise in power — by a decree that there will be severe consequences for predators or those who cover up abuse crimes. When last November the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was about to adopt a raft of new regulations in the immediate aftermath of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, Pope Francis stepped in. He wasn’t necessarily faulting the American regulations. He saw red flags about the mentality behind them. 

Francis does not want bishops to just fix the problem. First, he wants bishops to recognize the problem. He wants them to know in their hearts the human cost, the pain and the grief of abuse inflicted by sexual means. 

“The problem is that no matter what they (bishops) restructure or reform, the focus on the bureaucratic stuff is just insufficient,” Sr. Nuala Kenny told The Catholic Register. “You can have rules and laws, but you don’t pay attention to them if you don’t have the mind of Christ to interpret them.”

In her Halifax sitting room and kitchen, Kenny is surrounded by paper — reports, articles, lists, drafts, letters and e-mails — as she works on revising her groundbreaking 2012 parish workbook on sexual abuse called Healing the Church. The new version should be out in September. In 1989 Kenny, a medical doctor, was appointed to the St. John’s, Nfld commission to report on the sexual abuse crimes 

See ‘An endemic’ on Page 10

committed at the Mount Cashel orphanage — the first major, public sexual abuse scandal anywhere in the Church. She has been diagnosing the cancer in the Church ever since.

Criticizing this Pope’s record on sexual abuse may be fashionable in some circles, and Pope Francis himself must be glad to see the back of 2018, but Kenny remains convinced the Pope’s pastoral instincts and faith in the Church’s ordinary people is the only way to emerge from this nightmare.

Others may have “given up on the Holy Father,” she said. “I still love him.”

She respect that Francis seems constantly aware of the temptations of power that assail the Church.

“He’s actually not wanting to fall into that temptation of the Church of functionalism,” she said. 

Functionalism (funcionalismo in the Pope’s Spanish) would make the Church “like any other organization and he’s the CEO. He doesn’t want to fall into that,” Kenny said.

Kenny sometimes wishes the Pope would be a little more autocratic and tell the bishops what they must do. But she understands synodality and discernment. She wants the world’s bishops to come to a common understanding of what they’re facing and how they must respond.

“I know this from medicine, no group that has power can in fact monitor itself,” she said. “In the Church, it has to be clergy and laity together that does this.”

Pope Francis thinks like a Jesuit. He has steeped himself in the discipline of discernment for 60 years. Kenny’s sense of discernment was honed at the bedside, treating sick children. For Dr. Kenny, the result of discernment is a diagnosis.

“The abuse crisis is not an assault from the outside. It’s not even an infection in an otherwise healthy body. It’s not even a chronic illness,” she said. “It’s an endemic illness. 

“An endemic illness is multigenerational and pervasive to the point such that you don’t know what wellness is. Think of this: The nature of the clergy abuse crisis has shown us an endemic pathology. Part of the reason we deny what’s going on here is that we don’t know what’s right.”

Catholic detachment from reality is what Kenny sees when people try to argue that the problem comes down to gay men in the priesthood.

“It’s statistically wrong, psychologically wrong, medically wrong, anthropologically wrong. Homosexuality is not the cause of the abuse of minors,” said a frustrated, emphatic Kenny.

So if gathering the heads of national bishops conferences isn’t about dictating new rules and procedures to make the problem go away, then we have to appreciate how important it is to get back in touch with reality, said Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, who will be in Rome as the Vatican’s English-speaking media liaison.

“The cynics are saying, ‘What can come out of a meeting of four days?’ ” Rosica said. “It’s not the length of the meeting that determines the quality of the meeting. I think it’s going to be a very powerful meeting, with the Pope present for the whole meeting.”

Pope Francis has from the beginning of his papacy shown great respect for the work of bishops’ conferences in all of his encyclicals, treating their pastoral letters and statements as legitimate, magisterial Church teaching. Now he wants bishops to understand that power has helped destroy lives by enabling sexual abuse.

“We’ve watched one country after another face these issues,” said Rosica. “And more countries to come. This is now at the highest level of the Church. This is at the universal level. Nobody can ignore this right now.” 

Lombardi, who has watched the abuse crisis unfold while serving as the official spokesperson for Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, will chair the meeting. His institutional memory is important, Rosica said. In his working documents for the meeting, Lombardi warned against dismissing sexual abuse as an American problem or an anglophone problem or a media problem or a liberal problem or a conservative problem. 

“If the problem is not fully confronted in all its aspects, the Church will continue to find itself facing one crisis after another, her credibility and that of all priests will remain seriously wounded, but above all, what will suffer will be the substance of her mission to proclaim the Gospel,” Lombardi wrote.

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Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.