“The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not only those that are geographical, but also existential: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice; those of ignorance and of the absence of faith; those of thought; those of every form of misery,” the then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires said.
He then pointed to a passage in the Book of Revelation where Jesus says: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
“Obviously, the text refers to the fact that he stands outside the door and knocks to come in,” the future pope said. “But at times I think Jesus may be knocking from the inside, so we will let him out.”
It is an image that Francis has used to warn against the Church becoming (or remaining) “self-referential” and inwardly focused. He rightly believes that a Church turned in on itself and obsessed with internal problems is severely impeded from carrying out its true mission.
But there are a number of critical issues pertaining to the Household of God — particularly in its Roman chambers — that cannot be ignored or avoided.
They have been a cause of scandal for a great many and a wound to all. One of them is sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the inadequate way the hierarchy — especially the Vatican and the popes — have responded to this sinful and criminal behavior.
When Pope Francis returns from the United Arab Emirates he will have just over two weeks to make final preparations for a much-hyped meeting with presidents of all the bishops’ conference from around the world, which many observers have dubbed the Vatican “summit” on sex abuse.
The unprecedented gathering was announced on Sep. 12 as a meeting on the wide-ranging and somewhat vague theme of the “protection of minors.” And details of what is on the agenda for the Feb. 21-24 meeting have been almost as vague.
In a communiqué on Nov. 23 (that’s more than two months after the initial announcement) the Holy See Press Office said four men — two cardinals, an archbishop and a Jesuit priest — had been named to form the “organizing committee” for the meeting.
It said the team would consist of Cardinals Blase Cupich (Archbishop of Chicago) and Oswald Gracias (Archbishop of Mumbai), plus Archbishop Charles Scicluna (Malta) and Father Hans Zollner SJ (President of the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University).
The press statement said two lay women from the Vatican’s laity, family and life office — as well as “the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and some victims of abuse by members of the clergy” — would also be “involved in the preparatory work for the meeting.”
But what exactly their involvement would be, the statement did not say.
Since this information was published, the Vatican has offered only a few other details.
It was not until a few weeks ago that the press office announced that the organizing committee had finally gathered for a meeting (presumably its first) on Jan. 10 and had met privately with Pope Francis.
Alessandro Gisotti, the press office’s ad interim director, said on Jan. 16 it was decided that the February abuse summit would include “plenary sessions, working groups, moments of common prayer and listening to testimonies, a penitential liturgy and a final Eucharistic celebration.”
He said the pope pledged to be present throughout the four days and had chosen Father Federico Lombardi, the Jesuit who headed Vatican Radio for 26 years and was press office director from 2006-2016, to be moderator of the plenary sessions.
In a subsequent statement Gisotti said the “concrete purpose” of the four-day meeting is to make sure all the bishops “clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors.”
The Vatican spokesman said Pope Francis is convinced that “a global problem can only be resolved with a global response” and wants the February meeting to “be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference.”
It is to be “a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
The pope’s goal, Gisotti said, is to send the bishops back to their respective countries with a clear understanding of what laws need to be applied so “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.”
The spokesman downplayed the “high expectations that have been created around the meeting,” stressing that it would be just one more “stage along the painful journey that the Church has unceasingly and decisively undertaken for over 15 years.”
It was a cautionary note first expressed days earlier by Andrea Tornielli, the man recently hired to set the official editorial line for all Vatican communications.
“There are excessive media expectations in view of the upcoming meeting called by Pope Francis on the subject of protecting minors and vulnerable adults, as if it were an event halfway between a council and a conclave,” Tornielli wrote in a Vatican News editorial on Jan. 10.
“What needs to be emphasized, above all, is the universality that is typical of the Catholic Church and that reverberates in the meeting,” he said.
“The phenomenon of the abuse of minors, the horrific experiences of the victims, the procedures to be applied in the face of accusations, and the indications to ensure a safe environment for children and young people, will thus be examined from a perspective that is not solely European or American,” the Vatican’s editorial director added.
The remarks were evidently aimed at certain commentators in the United States, especially, those who have argued that the protocols and procedures adopted by the U.S. bishops should be the prototype for universal norms
Pope Francis also tried to tone down the hype surrounding the abuse summit while speaking to reporters on his Jan. 27 flight back to Rome from Panama.
“Allow me to say that I sensed a somewhat inflated expectation: we must lower expectations,” he said.
Then, basically admitting that the four-day meeting with the bishops would not be the final chapter in responding to the abuse crisis, the pope cautioned: “The problem of abuses will continue. It is a human problem, but human everywhere!”
He said the Vatican meeting was suggested by his C9 council of cardinal-advisors as a way to offer a “catechesis” to the world’s bishops on how to respond to abuse in the Church. “But first we have to become aware, have the protocols in place, and move forward,” he emphasized.
The announcement last September of the Vatican summit on the “protection of minors” (and vulnerable adults, according to Tornielli), has raised high hopes. And not all of them are inflated or unreasonable expectations.
One of these hopes was expressed through a plea that that victims groups be meaningfully consulted, directly involved in the planning and invited to speak at the meeting. It is not clear how seriously these suggestions have been considered by the organizing committee.
One thing is for sure: there are only a few weeks until the meeting gets underway, yet the Vatican has still not published a full list of the all the participants.
We know that the presidents of bishops’ conferences, representatives of men’s and women’s religious orders, heads of several Vatican offices and some victims of abuse will be attending. But particularly regarding those in this latter group, nothing is known.
Will there be representatives of vulnerable adults? Will religious sisters who have been abused be represented?
The secrecy and lack of transparency that has surrounded so much of the way the bishops around the world have for so long dealt with the clergy sex abuse crisis (just as they have dealt with many other things), also have somewhat of a hold on this upcoming meeting.
One thing that is particularly troubling is Pope Francis’ own questionable history of dealing with accusations of abuse — as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference and now as Bishop of Rome.
There is documented evidence that suggests he was deaf to the cries of alleged victims and was generally slow to believe the extent of abuse in the Church.
His response to clergy sex abuse has been marked, throughout much of his pontificate, by an attitude of ambivalence. Some may say that is an unfair judgment, but he has certainly appeared as wavering in many instances that he has acted (or failed to act) on matters pertaining to abuse.
Despite two different attempts Francis made to set up a judicial procedure for holding bishops accountable for mismanaging or covering up abuse cases (one in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was quickly aborted), the Vatican has never published any record of a bishop being subject to a trial.
Recently, it was announced — in New York, not in Rome! — that the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was being tried (in absentia) by some Vatican-based judicial apparatus. One of McCarrick’s victims has complained that he has not been asked to give testimony.
Francis removed McCarrick from the College of Cardinals. Now there is speculation that he will remove him from the priesthood (i.e. defrock him) before the Vatican summit on abuse takes place.
Just days ago, a priest who has been working in the CDF since 1993 “resigned” more than four years after he was accused of making sexual advances on a nun during confession. More than four years! How was he able to stay in his job for that long? Where was the zero tolerance for credibly accused priests that the pope says he favors?
And then there is the case of the Argentine bishop who abruptly resigned in 2017 more than 20 years before reaching the retirement age, supposedly because of difficulties managing his diocese.
Francis created a job for him in a major Vatican financial offices months later. And now it has been revealed that the bishop was reported to the Holy See in 2015 for sexual misconduct with seminarians, though Vatican officials deny the pope had any knowledge of this.
David Gibson, the award-winning journalist and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, rightly states that while “every case of abuse is a crime, a horror and a tragedy,” it is “the concealment of those acts, by bishops charged with overseeing priests, that infuriates the flock.”
To be fair, Pope Francis has removed a number of bishops who have been accused of concealing abuse, most of them in Chile, within the past year.
But these bishops were allowed officially to resign and neither the pope nor anyone in the Vatican has ever stated clearly and unequivocally the reasons for such resignations.
Gibson expresses a modest hope for the upcoming abuse summit, saying “one simple step — and one that should hardly be controversial — would be for the Vatican to explain why a bishop has been forced to resign, or indeed why he is allowed to resign at all and has not been dismissed.”
The 82-year-old pope has appeared conflicted when it comes to dismissing bishops. And there is a plausible explanation for that.
During his recent in-flight press conference, he said the idea for the abuse summit “was conceived in the C9 [Council of Cardinals] because there we saw that some bishops did not understand well or did not know what to do, or they did one good thing or one wrong thing.”
Was this just a noble expression of empathy for his fellow bishops, some of them friends, who made mistakes? Or was it an autobiographical statement — an admission that he, too, did not always do the right thing, either because he did not understand or know what to do?
There are enough signs that point to the latter. And perhaps this is why Francis has seemed so torn at times when it comes to disciplining bishops over this issue.
If this is, indeed, the case, he needs to say so — honestly and humbly — at the Feb. 21-24 meeting at the Vatican. It would require that he make himself vulnerable, something he has done regarding other matters in the past.
Some believe Pope Francis has undergone a sort of conversion in the last several months in his own understanding of abuse in the Church. That means he likely did not always deal with it in the best way.
Sharing his own personal testimony of failures may be the only way he can help bring about an awareness and conversion among bishop who cannot admit where they have failed.
It could be one of the most decisive moments for his legacy in dealing with the Church’s most serious crisis in centuries.
Robert Mickens is the Rome correspondent for La Croix International
This article has been on-published from La Croix, February 1, 2019