Will the abuse summit be a turning point for the Church?


Catholic Herald, 28 February 2019

There was undoubtedly a good spirit at the summit, but storm clouds are ahead

The Vatican’s clerical abuse summit was many things at the same time, some of them contradictory. The summit was the sixth major initiative on sexual abuse that Pope Francis has launched in six years, and all of the previous five have been rolled back, in whole or in part. So the evaluation of this summit will depend on the follow-through.

For a pope whose pastoral strategy is “begin processes” rather than prescribe procedures, it is plausible that the 2019 summit will be a spur to genuine change. If so, it will be because of matters spoken in public – in the presence of the Holy Father and the leading bishops of the world, covered in detail by the media – that have not been spoken so clearly before.

The voices of women were highlighted, and cannot be “unheard” after the pain they expressed, and the righteous anger. One spoke of being beaten and sexually assaulted by a priest, beginning at age 15 and continuing over many years. She was forced into multiple abortions. To have that evil, which cries to heaven, spoken openly in the Church, in such a setting, is genuinely new. It will be hard to go back to business as usual after hearing of that level of wickedness and corruption in the priesthood.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the Holy Father’s closest advisers, spoke frankly about records not being kept, or even being “destroyed” to cover up abuse. That it happened is by now well known, but that it was said openly by such a senior voice is new. That too cannot be unsaid.

What will come of the summit? Here the contradictions arise, which does not mean that nothing will happen, but rather that it is not yet clear.

The contradictions began in the staging of the summit. The Holy Father himself said that it was necessary to “deflate” expectations, yet the Vatican media operation treated it like a super-synod, complete with daily press conferences and a torrent of written statements. Expectations were deflated in word but inflated in practice.

Pope Francis concluded the meeting by calling for “an all-out battle” against sexual abuse, not just in the Church, but to “eradicate this evil from the body of humanity … for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.”

Such crimes will never be erased entirely, of course – as the Holy Father argued implicitly in the first part of his closing address, when he detailed at length that the “plague” of sexual abuse was widespread in society, is present historically in every culture and takes place mostly in the family.

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