When presidents and other representatives of the world’s nearly 130 bishops’ conferences gather in Rome next month for a summit on clerical sex abuse, many experts are predicting it will be the most-covered Vatican event since the last papal election in 2013.
Whether the gathering lives up to that hype, however, remains to be seen.
The Vatican has sought to downplay expectations for the February 21-24 event, with newly minted editorial director of the Vatican’s dicastery for Communications and veteran journalist Andrea Tornielli labeling the media hype of it as “excessive.” Yet the fact remains that after nearly a year of ongoing sex abuse scandals that have shaken the Church to its core, survivors and rank-and-file Catholics alike are increasingly impatient for results.
As the countdown begins, here’s Crux’s look at what is known - and what remains unknown.
Who Will Attend?
While the Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will attend the summit in its entirety, to date, it’s unknown exactly how many other people will be on hand.
Survivors have been invited to attend, thought they have not yet been identified. An invitation also was extended to the heads of the 22 Eastern Churches in Communion with Rome, as they traditionally hold the same weight.
Representatives of leadership groups of men’s and women’s religious orders and specialists on the subject are also on the guest list.
For Chile, it won’t be the president of the bishops’ conference who attends as he’s currently facing civil allegations of cover-up. Other countries, such as Venezuela, might request to send more than one participant, as historically there’s been a “voted” president of the conference and an “acting” one, the cardinal-archbishop of Caracas.
Ahead of the meeting, Francis has requested that all heads of bishops’ conferences meet survivors of clergy abuse as “a concrete way of ensuring that victim survivors of clerical abuse are first and foremost in the minds of all at the February gathering as they come together ‘in solidarity, humility and penitence’ to move forward in addressing the abuse crisis,” said a letter from the summit’s steering committee.
Major Themes: Responsibility, Accountability, and Transparency
Each day of the summit will have a particular focus: Responsibility, accountability, and transparency.
In general, the February meeting is meant to identify global solutions to the crisis and to emphasize the global nature of the problem, particularly where clergy sex abuse has yet to become an issue.
In an interview in November, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago told Crux that the pope is seeking both a comprehensive understanding of past failings as well as global solutions moving forward.
“That means … making sure all Church leaders have a full and firsthand understanding of the impact of clerical sexual abuse on victims. It also means naming and taking ownership for our failures fully in order to ensure they are not repeated. Of course, assuring they are not repeated will require all levels of the Church to take responsibility - local, regional, national, and universal,” he said.
Cupich is on the planning committee, along with Cardinal Oswald Gracias from India; Archbishop Charles Scicluna from Malta and the Vatican’s former top prosecutor of sex abuse crimes; and German Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, often seen as the leader of Rome’s response to the crisis as director of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University.
In addition, Gabriella Gambino and Linda Ghisoni, who serve as undersecretaries of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life are a part of the planning team, alongside the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
No members of the planning committee are from Latin America, where 40 percent of abuse cases currently being investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) come from, according to sources who spoke with Crux on background.
A communiqué issued by the planning committee earlier this month said the meeting “will include plenary sessions, working groups, moments of common prayer and listening to testimonies, a penitential liturgy and a final Eucharistic celebration,” - however a detailed schedule has not yet been made available.
Other Looming Factors
In addition to the meeting itself, there’s also hype over what might be announced before the meeting even begins.
As Crux reported earlier this month, the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) is working against the clock to investigate three cases against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for sexual abuse of minors, and is attempting to expedite its decision over whether to remove him from the priesthood.
There are also heightened expectations over replacements for key bishops who have been a part of the fallout from the crisis.
In Chile, all eyes are on Rome awaiting word as to who will replace 77-year old Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati as archbishop of Santiago who’s been summoned by prosecutors on cover-up charges.
In the United States, Catholics in the nation’s capital expect an announcement in the coming weeks as to who will replace Cardinal Donald Wuerl as archbishop of Washington. Wuerl resigned his post in October after coming under fire for his handling of abuse cases as bishop of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and 1990s.
While he’s still serving as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, he’s been heavily scrutinized following revelations that in 2004 he informed the Vatican of sexual misconduct between McCarrick and a New Jersey seminarian - only later to deny that he had ever heard rumors about McCarrick.
While Alessandro Gisotti, the Vatican’s new spokesman, has said that Francis wants the summit to be an “assembly of pastors, not an academic conference - a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering,” many Catholics around the world are expecting concrete action.
As Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical sexual abuse and former member of the Papal Commission for the Protection of Minors wrote on Twitter, many wonder if there’s “any chance at all they will spend some time on the practical work of setting down in writing agreed policies and signing off on them by end of meeting? If not, it will be just more words. Time for words is past time now for actions.”
On January 16, Gisotti said “It is fundamental for the Holy Father that when the bishops who will come to Rome have returned to their countries and their dioceses that they understand the laws to be applied and that they take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, to care for the victims and to make sure that no case is covered up or buried.”
He also noted that the gathering is not the Church’s first step to fight clerical sexual abuse, but a stage along the “painful journey that the Church has unceasingly and decisively undertaken for over 15 years.”
Yet former Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who Francis has also tapped to chair the February summit, recently acknowledged that only about half of national bishop conferences have adopted Vatican approved guidelines.
Sources both at the Vatican and in the United States have told Crux that lighting a fire under bishops’ conferences that have failed to enact such guidelines, or to implement them, might be one of the most important outcomes of the gathering - even if for some, such basic steps may seem long overdue.