Did the Vatican's sexual-abuse summit fail "the McCarrick test"?

The Vatican did its best to tamp down expectations before its summit on sexual abuse, right up until Pope Francis called for “concrete” measures to put an end to it. That start raised expectations from the meeting of 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world. By the end of the summit, however, victims and critics panned the initial outcome as little more than a “training seminar,” the Washington Post reported afterward:

For four days, some of the world’s highest-ranking Catholics listened to speeches about the “outrage of the people” and the imperative of action. They heard testimony from abuse victims, including one who movingly played the violin. And on Sunday, they gathered in a frescoed Vatican hall, where Pope Francis concluded the summit on clerical sexual abuse by calling for an “all-out battle” against the scourge.

But the unprecedented meeting ended Sunday with few concrete remedies, and it left the Catholic Church much where it started at the beginning of the week: asking for more time from an impatient faithful to draw up ways to reliably police itself.

“We are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth,” Francis said in a speech that was short on specifics but mentioned future “legislation.”

The vague outcome underscored the looming challenge for an institution that has long acknowledged the seriousness of clerical abuse but struggled to curtail it. While some participants said the event would prove to be a turning point, many victims said it had amounted to a training seminar that skirted key decisions and raised points that should have been obvious years ago.

That impression came from the very start of the unusual gathering, which had almost 200 participants. The pontiff issued a set of discussion points at the beginning of the summit, some of which created controversy on their own. It became apparent early on that there would be some resistance to the kind of “zero tolerance” policies imposed across the board, a demand from victims and some Western bishops’ conferences.

Instead, the main steps taken by the end of the summit involved more study and, well, training:

Pope Francis spoke at the Mass ending the summit on Sunday demanding an effort to rid the Catholic Church of the abuse which has plagued it for decades. However, Francis broadened this into a “universal problem,” and asserted that the church would take a leadership role in confronting it in all areas of society. He didn’t mention any “concrete” steps the church would take internally, however, which caught some observers by surprise:

For some, the pope’s passionate rhetoric fell short. “I didn’t see any concrete actions in the text,” said Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, a body of Catholic laypeople that advises U.S. bishops on child protection. “It’s a lot of words that have been spoken over and over again.”

Expectations had been high for the speech, the culmination of the pope’s most high-profile response to the abuse crisis, but it appeared unlikely to heal divisions within the church or repair the confidence of believers in the U.S. and elsewhere after years of revelations of abuse and of coverups by senior clergy.

Abuse victims and activists who support tough reforms had called on the pope to institute a global policy of “zero tolerance” that would make removing all clerical abusers from ministry the law of the church. But the pope, who had previously used the phrase, didn’t mention it in his speech, in what critics took as a signal that the problem wouldn’t be solved during his pontificate.

The pope’s critics and others are likely to continue to press for more concrete overhauls to make the church’s handling of abuse cases more transparent and to show that wrongdoers and bishops who cover up for them are consistently held to account.

Vatican observer and Relevant Radio analyst Dr. Matthew Bunson writes in the National Catholic Register that the lack of concrete steps made this seem like “another missed opportunity.” Francis’ anti-climactic speech will end up obscuring some good work by the summit participants to shine a light on the failings within the church, Bunson notes:

The result was that the pope’s final address overshadowed all of the other speakers rather than affirming and summarizing what they had said. This was a pity, because some of the speeches were quite effective or showed flashes of a way forward that might truly benefit the Church in a time of deep trauma.

As was needed, the meeting touched on the role of bishops and looked for ways to hold them accountable and responsible for crimes of abuse or cover-up. This might have been opportunity to begin a reflection on the identity of the bishop in the life of the Church and in light of the Second Vatican Council and collegiality. Unfortunately, such means of building toward authentic reform and renewal were caught up in the still hazy concept of synodality that wormed its way into virtually every speech during the meeting and that continues to obscure more than illuminate as it comes into even more aggressive currency in this pontificate.

Synodality” relates to the collegiality of bishops, as opposed to overlapping authority. As each bishop is considered a spiritual descendant of an apostle, no bishop can order another about specific acts of local governance. National conferences can set policies, but unless those get put into church law, they are merely guidelines. Only the authority of the pontiff can direct bishops — and the lack of clear direction in this case makes this summit look indeed like a missed opportunity, at least in the short run.

Nevertheless, the finale sends the issue back to the national conferences with the charge to set up what could be called a “McCarrick Test,” changes that would prevent another abuser from going as far as Theodore McCarrick did before being brought to account for his crimes. Bunson wonders whether that message got through, although it certainly was made obvious during the summit:

At the press conference on Feb. 22, longtime CNN Vatican reporter Delia Gallagher pointed out to Cardinal Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston that in 2002 the American Cardinals were in Rome working to implement a zero-tolerance policy, and the main figure in that was then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Why, she asked, should the American people trust them again?

Mr. Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, DC, and once a powerful cardinal, was laicized only days before the start of the summit after one of the most horrendous scandals in American Catholic history. He loomed large at the Vatican summit, and after any speech that proposed new procedures and norms, reporters and Catholic faithful could ask: will this prevent a new McCarrick? The test assumes greater significance as Catholics await the release of all relevant documents pertaining to his case and answering who knew what about him and when. Until that happens, questions remain about both the commitment to promised transparency and the seriousness of rooting current abusers and those who help shield them, most so among the ranks of the bishops.

If that was the test for this summit on its own, it failed, at least in the short run. That was almost ordained, pardon the pun, from the start. American bishops had urged Pope Francis to cancel the Synod on Youth last fall and use the time instead to deal with this issue with all of the bishops present, not just the conference presidents. If that had taken place, there would have been an opportunity to start the process of legislation that would have provided some kind of concrete steps to deal with the scandals.

If the ball got dropped, Bunson has hope that it will get picked up again soon, at least in the US:

By its end, the Vatican summit felt incomplete. Perhaps because scant mention was made of the root cause of abuse, save for allusions to clericalism and abuse of power. There was no attention to other aspects, including predatory homosexuality in the seminaries, the demolition of the moral life by the sexual revolution and the practical abandonment of the Church’s teaching on chastity. While it was a start, many have to ask if the meeting achieved Pope Francis’ stated goal of concrete action.

The hard road now lies ahead of finding value where possible in its deliberations. The U.S. bishops must now start with the proposals and forge norms that will pass the McCarrick test, not to mention canonical, legal and theological threats and ramifications. Circle June on the calendar for when the bishops gather for their spring meeting.

Keep an eye on the next synod in Rome, too. If the Vatican wants to be seen as taking effective and “concrete” steps to deal with this plague, the issue has to come to that level — and soon.