Pope to host car­di­nals, bish­ops for con­fer­ence on sex abuse

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - CHICO HAR­LAN

VAT­I­CAN CITY — Pope Fran­cis is pre­par­ing to con­vene an un­prece­dented con­fer­ence on sex abuse this month, widely viewed as among the most piv­otal mo­ments of his pa­pacy, but the Vat­i­can is cautioning not to ex­pect too much.

“I per­mit my­self to say that I’ve per­ceived a bit of an in­flated ex­pec­ta­tion,” Fran­cis said. “We need to de­flate the ex­pec­ta­tions.”

The Holy See’s press of­fice re­leased a state­ment call­ing the meet­ing just one stage in a 15-year jour­ney.

The pope de­scribed his goal as ed­u­cat­ing bish­ops on the prob­lem of abuse and how prop­erly to han­dle it — which ad­vo­cates say the church has talked about for years.

Fran­cis called for the meet­ing while fac­ing a crescendo of sex­ual abuse scan­dals across the Catholic world — cases in which bish­ops and car­di­nals are al­leged to have en­abled abuse or car­ried it out them­selves.

The four-day meet­ing — sched­uled to be­gin Feb. 21 and to be at­tended by the heads of more than 100 na­tional bish­ops’ con­fer­ences — marks the first time a pope has brought to­gether the re­li­gion’s top lead­ers to dis­cuss the is­sue of abuse. It presents an op­por­tu­nity for Fran­cis to work to re­pair the church’s dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion and demon­strate that it will be more proac­tive in its ef­fort to elim­i­nate the scourge of abuse.

But the land­mark event is a risk for the pon­tiff and could end up boost­ing crit­i­cism that he is mov­ing too slowly and re­luc­tantly to tackle the Ro­man Catholic Church’s great­est cri­sis.

Vat­i­can watch­ers say it is un­clear whether the church can emerge from the con­fer­ence with the kind of con­crete pol­i­cy­mak­ing re­forms that have long been urged by ad­vo­cates. Such re­forms would in­clude changes in canon law or new mech­a­nisms that aim to hold ac­count­able bish­ops who cover up abuse.

Speak­ing to re­porters last month, Fran­cis said he in­tended the event to help bish­ops be­come bet­ter aware of both the suf­fer­ing of vic­tims and the “pro­to­cols” for deal­ing with com­plaints.

Such an out­come could help boost the vig­i­lance of bish­ops in parts of the world not yet hit by high-pro­file abuse scan­dals. But it would qual­ify as a let­down across parts of Europe and in the United States, where Catholic lead­ers are well aware of the abuse prob­lem and long ago drew up their own safe­guard­ing poli­cies.

“I think Amer­i­cans will be dis­ap­pointed in the meet­ing,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Je­suit priest and a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Re­li­gion News Ser­vice. “They’ll be hear­ing things that we’ve been talk­ing about for the last 20 years. But I could see it be­ing a fail­ure for the U.S. church while it’s a suc­cess for the church in Africa and Asia and Latin Amer­ica.”

Some ex­perts said the pope could take a key step by em­pha­siz­ing the ex­pec­ta­tion that cler­ics who are found guilty of abuse be im­me­di­ately re­moved from priestly du­ties. This “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy, as it is known, has been ig­nored by bish­ops in cer­tain re­gions.

But ad­vo­cates ar­gue that the church should be be­yond the stage of ed­u­cat­ing lead­ers, given that cases of priestly abuse ex­ploded on the world stage al­most two decades ago.

Although the con­fer­ence this month is un­prece­dented be­cause of the pope’s di­rect in­volve­ment, the Vat­i­can seven years ago en­dorsed and par­tic­i­pated in a sim­i­lar sex abuse-themed meet­ing at a univer­sity in Rome. More than 100 bish­ops con­fer­ences sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Then-Pope Bene­dict XVI ex­pressed his sup­port. Vat­i­can higher-ups apol­o­gized to vic­tims and talked about elim­i­nat­ing the plague of abuse. Speak­ers in­cluded Arch­bishop Charles Sci­cluna and the Rev. Hans Zoll­ner, two of the Vat­i­can fig­ures or­ga­niz­ing the 2019 event.

“So the idea that these bish­ops now have to have aware­ness first — duh, that was seven years ago,” said Marie Collins, an Ir­ish abuse vic­tim and for­mer mem­ber of the pope’s com­mis­sion on sex­ual abuse. “And ob­vi­ously that [2012 event] didn’t achieve any­thing. It’s Ground­hog Day. There’s an am­ne­sia.”

The Vat­i­can has urged the bish­ops go­ing to Rome to meet be­fore­hand with sur­vivors of cler­i­cal abuse, “to learn first-hand the suf­fer­ing that they have en­dured.” It also an­nounced the list of peo­ple or­ga­niz­ing the event. But other de­tails re­main undis­closed, in­clud­ing the speak­ers and top­ics that will be dis­cussed.

The church has strug­gled to make progress on pre­vent­ing sex­ual abuse in part be­cause its lead­ers are at odds over the root causes and po­ten­tial so­lu­tions. Bish­ops are di­vided on the de­gree to which a cler­i­cal “ho­mo­sex­ual cul­ture” is a part of the prob­lem. They dis­agree on whether lay church mem­bers should play a greater role in in­ves­ti­gat­ing abuse claims. A por­tion of bish­ops still push back against the no­tion that abuse is a global prob­lem, say­ing it is in­stead con­tained within the West­ern Church.

“We still hear that,” said Mon­signor Stephen Ros­setti, a priest who spoke at the 2012 event about ways to com­bat abuse. “Ac­tu­ally, the U.S. is one of the only coun­tries that [fol­lows] a for­mal zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy. Most don’t. And they will learn the hard way. The mes­sage would be, ‘Save your­self 20 years of pain.’”


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