Progress? Pontiff sets summit on abuse scandals for February

Silence and prayer haven’t worked to end the outrage over the continuing scandals and cover-up in the Catholic Church, despite Pope Francis’ calls over the last two weeks. Now Pope Francis has decided on a new strategy, calling for a summit of conference presidents to discuss the crisis within the church. However, its date has some people wondering whether this effort should be taken seriously:

Pope Francis has called for all the presidents of the Catholic bishops’ conferences of the world to meet at the Vatican in February to discuss the issue of sexual abuse of minors.

A statement from the pope’s cardinal advisory board Sept. 12 said, “The Holy Father Francis, hearing the Council of Cardinals, decided to convene a meeting with the Presidents of the Bishops Conferences of the Catholic Church on the theme of ‘protection of minors.’”

The summit will take place at the Vatican Feb. 21-24, 2019.

CNN and other media outlets called this “unprecedented.” Just how unprecedented is a summit of conference presidents? The Vatican couldn’t immediately come up with a number of potential attendees. CNA came up with 135 (114 in the Latin Rite, 24 in the Eastern Rites), but it might end up being more, depending on how wide the invitations go.

But why wait until February? The ordinary synod will take place next month, when bishops and cardinals from all over the world will be in the Vatican. The summit could take place before, after, or even in parallel to the ordinary synod rather than replace it. Given the theme for this year’s synod — “Youth, faith, and vocational discernment” — one might wonder how the synod would be received without dealing with the crisis. The timing makes it look like the Vatican still isn’t taking this very seriously.

On the other hand, the decision to call the conference presidents rather than the College of Cardinals for the summit seems promising. That bypasses the Vatican’s own bureaucracy and gives bishops in the field an opportunity to address the crisis. Unfortunately, that might be a little tough to do credibly, since the scandals involve some of the bishops in the field, either as abusers or as enablers. As long as that’s the case, then whatever results this summit produces will likely be entirely discounted as more of the same empty talk that the hierarchy has produced over the last sixteen years of scandals.

If the intervening time is meant to cull those bishops out of the conferences, then the delay until February makes some sense. If the Vatican orders bishops to fully disclose all accusations, settlements, and personnel moves made over the last few decades related to abuse, then it might set the table for this summit as a fresh start. Absent those moves on transparency, though, it’s tough to see the summit as anything too significant, at least from today’s perspective.

If the Vatican wants real credibility from just the summit, though, they’ll have to do better than just having a meeting of conference presidents. They need to invite the laity to participate — and I mean participate, not serve as mere observers. The only way out of these scandals is to build structures of accountability outside the hierarchical structure of the episcopacy, which serves other purposes well (doctrinal and liturgical especially). Each conference president should be accompanied by a lay person willing to volunteer as the national leader of lay oversight committees in every diocese, linked to all the others around the world, with a real voice in the Vatican to deal with scandal and abuse, especially involving bishops.

Until we build those structures of independent accountability and endure radical disclosure of all past sins, the Catholic Church will never regain its credibility and moral force. Everything else is simply business as usual, even if the attendees to it are new.