Pope Francis opened a four-day summit at the Vatican Thursday on preventing clergy sexual abuse by demanding action, not just condemnation. But critics are skeptical the meetings will set a new course for the church, particularly because the narrow focus of the gathering may fail to address the root cause of the crisis.
Organizers decided to restrict the topic of the summit to the sexual abuse of minors, bypassing two glaring issues some argue should be on the agenda: the sexual abuse of adults, especially seminarians and nuns, and homosexuality among Catholic leaders.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, told me. She said the abuse of minors as well as the abuse of seminarians and clergy sexual misconduct are all “rooted in the same toxic culture of sexual indulgences and secrecy.”
The case of former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Francis defrocked just this past weekend, illustrates the multifaceted nature of the crisis. Multiple men have said McCarrick abused them—some when they were minors and others when they were adult seminary students. The alleged abuse spanned McCarrick’s career as a priest, bishop, archbishop, and cardinal. A church whistleblower has said knowledge of the accusations against McCarrick reached as high as the Holy See at times, and yet McCarrick was allowed to advance through the church hierarchy and did not face any official public discipline until last year.
Hasson said Catholics have questions about why no one besides McCarrick has been held accountable in the scandal, and why the pope has not addressed charges he knew of McCarrick’s behavior in 2013 and did nothing.
“Catholics are right to demand more from the church, so if the summit fails to deal with this problem, Catholics will react—perhaps by keeping their wallets closed, turning up the pressure locally or, sadly, leaving the church,” she said.
During a news conference on Tuesday, the summit organizers fielded questions from journalists about whether priests, bishops, and cardinals have been unwilling to denounce each other because of widespread homosexual behavior throughout the hierarchy. One journalist asked about a book released this week, In the Closet of the Vatican, by a French writer who spent four years investigating the double lives of Catholic bishops and cardinals and called the Vatican one of the world’s largest gay communities. “I think you were right to say it is a hypothesis,” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago responded, “and hypotheses have to be proven.”
The U.S.-based Catholic Women’s Forum sent a submission to the Vatican this month to give a voice to American women on the issue of clergy sex abuse. One part of the submission was a letter from a mother of a 16-year-old boy who was molested in 2015 by the family’s longtime parish priest in Louisiana. Another was a survey of more than 5,000 Catholic women in the United States, the vast majority of whom reported a significant lack of trust of the Catholic hierarchy and expressed support for institutional reforms and a code of conduct for bishops to stop clergy from living “double lives.”
Hasson said she doesn’t expect the summit will yield concrete results relevant to the concerns of U.S. Catholics, but she does expect the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take up accountability proposals—suspended by the Vatican at the conference meeting in November—at its next gathering. She also hopes individual U.S. bishops will move ahead on their own, “willingly binding themselves to codes of conduct and establishing reporting mechanisms, being transparent about credible allegations and how cases are handled at all steps, and incorporating lay people to ensure accountability.”
Hasson added, “That is the way forward—diocese by diocese. Bishops have an opportunity to prove they are trustworthy by taking the initiative and doing whatever it takes—showing the love of a spiritual father for a hurting flock.”