From the beginning, two things have been true about the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
The first is that the Church failed, and failed miserably, in its duty to protect children and vulnerable adults entrusted to its care. Unearthing those failures, and doing justice for them, is a long-term challenge that’s far from over.
The second is that despite those failures, the Catholic Church also carries generations of wisdom about raising children successfully, about parenting and education and formation, but it’s been difficult to get any of that across in a context in which you put the words “children” and “Church” into a sentence. For most people the third word that automatically comes to mind is “abuse.”
On Thursday, Pope Francis may just have unveiled a strategy for addressing that imbalance, getting the Catholic Church back on offense after decades of being on the defensive.
It came in his annual address to the diplomatic corps, which, a priori, is not a setting in which one might have expected papal reflections on the abuse crisis. It’s touted as the pontiff’s most important foreign policy address of the year, and, in context, most observers were awaiting whatever Francis might say about tensions between U.S./Iran.
He certainly delivered on that front, issuing an appeal to “all the interested parties [to] avoid an escalation of the conflict and ‘keep alive the flame of dialogue and self-restraint,’ in full respect of international law,” quoting his own Angelus address from four days ago.
Francis touched on many topics as well, including what he called a “culture of silence” surrounding the war in Syria, the fate of the Amazon, the need for an “ecological conversion,” and points beyond.
There in the middle of it all, however, was a lengthy treatment of the abuse scandals.
“These are crimes that offend God, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to their victims, and damage the life of whole communities,” the pope said.
Francis referred to the extraordinary summit he called in February 2019 with the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences of the world, designed to identify “best practices” in the fight against clerical abuse and to promote a uniform global culture of prevention, detection and prosecution of abuse. Among other things, it was the February summit that prompted Francis to abolish the requirement of pontifical secrecy in abuse cases in December.
What came next is the decisive part.
The gravity of the harm caused by child sexual abuse, the pope said, makes it all the important for adults to step up, devoting their best efforts “to guide young people to spiritual, human and social maturity.” For that reason, Francis said, he’s planning to convene a global event on May 14 titled “Reinventing the Global Compact on Education.”
The fact of the event was already well known, since Francis announced it on Sept. 12, it now has a web site, and planning is well underway.
What was new in Thursday’s address was the explicit linkage to the Church’s abuse scandals. In the past when Francis has talked about the May event, he’s usually situated it in the context of his eco-encyclical Laudato si’, a document on human fraternity he co-signed in Abu Dhabi along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, and other cornerstones of his papacy and Catholic social teaching.
The idea behind the event is to bring together representatives of the world’s great religions, leaders of international organizations, experts from the academic, political and cultural worlds, who will craft and then sign a “Global Educational Pact” intended to form young generations in the idea of “common fraternal home.”
“What is needed is an educational vision that can encompass a broad range of life experiences and learning processes, in order to enable young people, individually and collectively, to develop their personalities,” Francis said on Thursday.
“Education is not limited to school and university classrooms; it is principally ensured by strengthening and reinforcing the primary right of the family to educate, and the right of churches and social communities to support and assist families in raising their children,” he said.
By juxtaposing all that with the abuse scandals, Francis may have been delivering an indirect message to the Church that this is what recovery looks like: As critical as confessing failures and bringing justice to victims is, it cannot paralyze the Church’s broader mission or prevent Catholicism from mobilizing its resources for the common good, especially when it has something unique to contribute.
It remains to be seen, of course, how successful the May event will be, and whether it has any lasting impact on educational practice around the world. In any event, it represents a precious chance for the Catholic Church to regain some of its moral authority when it comes to the care of children, catalyzing a renewed global focus on education.
In the meantime, the very fact of the summit hints at the intriguing possibility that, perhaps for the first time in decades, there will be sentences crafted in 2020 featuring the words “Church” and “children” that do not automatically end on a sour note.