Will the Pope’s ‘Pastoral’ Approach Lead to Any Real Action on Sexual Abuse?


National Catholic Register, 19 February 2019

COMMENTARY: The Feb. 21-24 meeting takes the view that bishops who think as the Pope wishes them to think about their role as shepherds will then do the right thing in tackling sex abuse.

As the sex-abuse summit convenes Thursday in Rome, Pope Francis, for the sixth time in six years, will attempt to accelerate the pace and reach of the Church’s efforts to deal with sexual abusers and to protect minors. Those earlier efforts have, in fits and starts, raised both levels of frustration and expectation that this summit will have genuine results.

And as the summit opens, surprising criticism of the Holy Father’s record is coming from Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, appointed by Pope Francis to head up the pontifical sex-abuse commission.

The Framework of Pope Francis

The summit will operate within a framework of the dominant themes established by Pope Francis. The official program, released Monday, has Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, speaking on the “smell of the sheep” and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta addressing “the field hospital.” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, India, will speak on “collegiality” in a Church that is “sent out,” while Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago will address “synodality.”

The program puts an emphasis not on policies or procedures, let alone changes to canon law, but on a change in mentality by bishops. The favored themes of the Holy Father are to provide the new directions necessary for tackling sex abuse on a universal level.

The sex-abuse summit thus follows in the same line as the synods on the family and youth, where the emphasis shifted from specific questions of doctrine or moral teaching to the call for a new pastoral approach. The summit takes the view that bishops who think as Pope Francis wishes them to think about their role as shepherds will then do the right thing in tackling sex abuse.

Six Initiatives in Six Years

The summit is the sixth major initiative of Pope Francis on the sex-abuse file. And it opens with his chief lieutenant for sexual abuse, Cardinal O’Malley, expressing his frustration with the shortcomings of the previous five.

In 2013, the Holy Father established a papal commission to advise the Holy See on best practices. Last week, prominent articles appeared that gave voice to Cardinal O’Malley’s frustration, namely that the Holy Father hears the commission’s advice, accepts it, but does not follow through.

The frustration appears to be mutual. Cardinal O’Malley is conspicuously absent from the summit’s program, even though two of his colleagues on the “council of cardinals” — Cardinals Gracias and Reinhard Marx of Munich, Germany — are plenary speakers.

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