Expectations high for pope’s sex-abuse conference, but some brace for disappointment
In what could be a defining moment for his papacy, more than 100 top Catholic bishops from around the world will travel to the Vatican Rome this week for a conference aimed at dealing with the issue of clergy sex abuse.
Pope Francis is the first church leader to convene such a meeting to discuss the issue. And after a year in which high-ranking church officials resigned in scandal, the conference that opens Thursday could present an opportunity for him to dispel criticism that he has responded sluggishly as the crisis continued worldwide.
But should his four-day event fail to deliver, the pope risks cementing the impression among detractors that he remains resistant to meaningful change.
Sex-abuse victims are expected to set up shop outside the Vatican as the prelates meet privately.
“They know that this is a very high-stakes meeting,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and scholar of church history at Villanova University. “The attention here in Rome is already similar to what you’d see for a papal conclave.”
As if to signal his seriousness, Francis this weekend took his most meaningful step to date by defrocking Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., after the church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians.
Though the Vatican had defrocked hundreds of priests for sexual misconduct since the worldwide crisis began nearly two decades ago, McCarrick is the first cardinal in modern history to be expelled from the priesthood, the most serious penalty the church can impose.
Before that significant move, Francis and his aides in recent weeks had sought to temper expectations for this week’s conference. The pope suggested last month that anticipation surrounding the conference had grown well beyond anything the meeting itself could deliver.
“Let me say that I’ve perceived expectations that are a little inflated,” he said. “We need to deflate those expectations.”
Francis has pledged to attend every day of the meeting and described his goals as educating bishops on accountability, responsibility and transparency, and explaining how to properly handle complaints from victims.
Late last week, the event’s organizers still had not released a full schedule, although they have urged attendees to meet with victims in their own countries before showing up in Rome.
The lone American on the planning team — Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago — told the Associated Press last week that he expects the church will have made “significant progress” toward abuse prevention by the end of the week.
But neither he nor the rest of the committee has offered any sign that the conference will end with the type of sweeping pronouncements hoped for by some victims and their advocates in the United States.
Still, some experts identified steps the pope could take before the meeting ends, such as making the U.S. church’s “zero tolerance” policy for abusive priests the worldwide standard. The Vatican also could instruct all bishops’ conferences to adopt anti-abuse guidelines or to draft protocols for handling claims against prelates who mishandle complaints from victims or are accused of abuse themselves, they said.
Those steps are likely to seem underwhelming in the United States, where bishops adopted similar reforms more than a decade ago and still are grappling with demands from church members to do more, including strengthening measures to hold themselves accountable.
The last year has been particularly bruising for the U.S. hierarchy, starting with McCarrick’s resignation in July as the sexual-misconduct allegations against him emerged.
A Pennsylvania grand jury report followed, along with the removal of several more prelates accused of abuse.
Now, some Catholics say they have more faith in the U.S. Justice Department or the dozen or so state attorneys general who are investigating the church’s handling of sex-abuse claims than they do any promises from church leaders that they can police themselves.
“Many U.S. Catholics feel a sense of urgency and that this is a real crisis,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a University of Notre Dame historian who runs its center for the study of American Catholicism. “But the Vatican is an incredibly inefficient and cumbersome bureaucracy that’s inflexible and doesn’t change easily. For Rome, this is urgency.”
Bishops in the United States had hoped to vote on a more stringent series of reforms at a meeting last fall, including a new code of conduct for prelates and a proposed review board that would give Catholic laity a role in investigating the church hierarchy.
But the Vatican stayed their hand, raising concerns that the latter measure, in particular, did not conform to canon law.
Part of the reason the Vatican has struggled to define a universal approach to the crisis is that there is little agreement about the extent or the root causes of the problem.
In the United States, some conservative bishops have claimed that a cabal of homosexuals within the church hierarchy is to blame, throwing around terms like the Lavender Mafia.
Meanwhile, some prelates in the developing world dismiss the issue as a problem only for the West.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has said he struggled to engage his counterparts from Africa and Asia in serious discussions on clergy sex abuse while he represented the United States at a Vatican assembly in October.
“There was little appetite among the majority of people to spend much time talking about it,” he said at a conference in Baltimore last fall. “People in some parts of the world say it’s not an issue for them.”