Vatican summit on child sex abuse: What to expect

After decades of religious figures sexually assaulting children, Pope Francis attempts to resolve crisis.

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience, in the Pope Paul VI hall, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience, in the Pope Paul VI Hall, at the Vatican, on January 30 [File: Andrew Medichini/AP]

Pope Francis has summoned senior bishops from all over the world to Rome for a landmark meeting on sexual abuse.

From Thursday to Sunday, 190 Catholic leaders, including 10 women, will gather in the Italian capital at the pope’s request; the event marks the first time in history that a pope has called senior bishops to discuss sexual abuse

Scandals have struck the Catholic Church for decades, with pressure increasing after journalistic and judicial investigations revealed patterns of sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Further cases in 2018 heightened the crisis – some senior bishops have said the issue puts the very credibility of the Catholic Church at stake. 

What’s the summit about? 

It’s a four-day gathering of about 190 Catholic leaders who will discuss how to resolve the issue of the sexual abuse of minors.

It takes place in the Vatican, in Rome, under the official title of “Protection of Minors in the Church”. 

The Vatican’s press office has described the meeting’s goal as making “absolutely clear” to bishops how to act to prevent and deal with sexual abuse.

For survivors who have been around for 25 years, like me, this is an incredible achievement. Years ago, this was inconceivable.

Peter Isely, survivor

It focuses on sharing best practices in dealing with abuse, educating bishops on the problem, and on bolstering transparency, responsibility and accountability in the church. It will not, crucially, focus on canon law reform.

The pope has asked those invited to pray for the coming meeting. 

The summit is important for at least three reasons. 

First, although similar meetings have taken place in the past, it is the first time that a pope has summoned senior bishops for it.

Second, Pope Francis has given more voice to survivors of clerical sexual abuse – he has met some of them and has urged bishops to do the same in their countries before leaving for Rome. Some survivors will also give their testimony at the summit.

Finally, the Vatican has acknowledged that sexual abuse is a global problem in the church, and not only an issue in some specific countries, as it had previously downplayed it.

Not everyone agrees on the summit’s importance, but most people welcome it as a positive development.

“For survivors who have been around for 25 years, like me, this is an incredible achievement,” says Peter Isely, a survivor, critic of the Vatican and founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) Global. “Years ago, this was inconceivable.”

Why is it happening now?

Two cases, in particular, have shaken the Vatican in 2018.

In the United States, the grand jury of the state of Pennsylvania released a report that revealed the sexual abuse and systematic cover-up of more than 1,000 minors over 70 years, implicating some 300 clergymen.

After its release, at least 14 other US states have launched similar investigations, suggesting that more scandals are likely to surface in the next few years.

People hold banners reading 'Neither lefties nor fools, Osorno suffers, Bishop Barros, accessory after the fact,' during a protest, as Pope Francis visits Santiago, Chile [File: Carlos Vera/Reuters]People hold banners reading ‘Neither lefties nor fools, Osorno suffers, Bishop Barros, accessory after the fact,’ during a protest, as Pope Francis visits Santiago, Chile [File: Carlos Vera/Reuters]

The other incident took place in Chile, where bishops and high prelates have come under pressure for covering up a sexual abuse crisis centred around Fernando Karadima.

While Karadima was sentenced to a “life of prayer and penance” in 2011, his case came back under the spotlight after Pope Francis spoke in support of one of the bishops involved in the cover-up, in early 2018.

Realising the mistake, the pope has since apologised and called the Chilean bishops to Rome. They offered their resignations en-masse, and five of them have been accepted.

Karadima has since been removed from the priesthood.

If the summit turns out to be more of the same, survivors will keep fighting. It's a tsunami that no one will stop.

Juan Carlos Cruz, survivor

“I believe the Chilean case was decisive [for calling the summit],” says Paolo Rodari, Vatican analyst for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. “It was a big blow for Pope Francis.

“My impression is that the pope realised that not everyone in the church grasps the seriousness of the problem,” he says. “It signals that the pope has understood how serious this is.”

Is the Catholic community supportive?

Almost entirely, although some are not convinced.

Some victims, for example, don’t support the summit because it doesn’t promise canon law reform. They have even called it a media bluff.

“For us, this summit is meaningless,” says Francesco Zanardi, a survivor who has campaigned on the issue for nine years. He is the president of Rete L’Abuso, an Italian association of survivors. “We are only going to Rome to protest.” 

Inside the church though, there is little outspoken opposition. 

“Everybody in the church is against sexual abuse, that is not the question,” says Rev Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with the Religious News Service.

“The question is that there are bishops, predominantly in the Global South, who don’t think it is a problem in their countries.”

He explains that this happens because scandals haven’t struck all countries, so some bishops feel safe. But this often happens because of social stigma on the sexually abused in certain countries, or because survivors are not encouraged to come out – not because abuses haven’t happened.

What can we expect to happen?

Actually not much, at least for now.

While this might lead to concrete results in the future, it’s unlikely to produce ground-breaking new protocols in the short run.

Pope Francis has warned that expectations around the summit must be “deflated”, and Vatican sources have called it a step in a 15-year journey. 

These words have frustrated survivors and activists demanding an immediate end to clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups.

“Expecting a priest who sexually abuses a child and a bishop who covers it up to be removed from the priesthood is not an ‘inflated’ expectation,” says Peter Isely of ECA Global. “It’s a minimum expectation.”

On Monday, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s leading investigator of clerical sexual abuse, confirmed that “this is not going to be a three-day wonder” and stressed the importance of follow-ups on the summit.

What do survivors want? 

Survivors want the Vatican to remove from the priesthood not only any priest guilty of sexually abusing a child, but also any bishops and cardinals involved in covering him up and shuffling them to other posts.

Other demands include handing over priest offenders to civil authorities and ending alternative punishment such as sentences to a life of “penance and prayer” or retreat in religious institutions instead of jail.

All survivors pledge to carry on their battle. “We’ve lived with a lot of disappointments,” says Peter Isely of ECA Global. “Expectation is not what drives us.”

Juan Carlos Cruz, who is among the people abused by Karadima in Chile and has also met Pope Francis to discuss the problem, said: “[Bishops who deny the problem] are on borrowed time. If the summit turns out to be more of the same, survivors will keep fighting. It’s a tsunami that no one will stop.” 

Some interviews were translated from Italian.

Source: Al Jazeera

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