Last Wednesday, September 12th, Pope Francis summoned bishops from across the world to meet to discuss the sexual abuse crisis currently confronting the Catholic Church. The meeting, slated to occur February 21st to 24th, will mark the first time a gathering has ever been called within the Church to discuss this taboo yet incredibly important topic. The goals of the meeting, according to Professor Caffo, member of the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, are to train bishops to recognize instances of abuse and hold each other accountable, and to teach them how to better listen to victims.
To many, the Pope’s summoning is long overdue. The timing of the Pope’s announcement, however, comes at little surprise. The Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S. recently accused the Pope, in fact, of ignoring recent evidence of sexual assault by an American cardinal. Moreover, Rome Bureau Chief Jason Horowitz and National Religion Correspondent Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times explain, “News of the pope’s summons came as a study commissioned by the church in Germany revealed the abuse of thousands of children by more than a thousand clergymen there for decades.” The study, supposed to be published in late September, was leaked last week, around the time of the Pope’s announcement.
The Pope’s announcement signifies at least to some extent the Church finally treating sexual abuse as the global epidemic that it is, instead of continuing to brush off incidents that surface in the media as isolated cases of misbehavior. Indeed, prior to the Pope’s summoning, the Church has failed to truly recognize the global nature of its problem; when scandals were first brought to public attention in the mid 1980s, for example, Vatican officials wrote off the abuse cases as part of an “American phenomenon.” When more cases began to surface in the press in Australia, Ireland, England, and Canada, sexual assault was dismissed yet again in the Church as a problem in only “English-speaking countries.”
While cases of priests’ sexual abuse of children in places like Chile and the Philippines have begun to shatter this notion, it is still vital that the Church—and the world—recognize the truly global pervasiveness of this problem.
As Mary Collins, Irish abuse survivor, explains, “This subject has to be tackled globally. There are bishops in parts of the world who don’t even accept that abuse could happen in their dioceses.” Collins supports the Pope’s meeting, but like many others, hopes it will spur tangible action on the subject, not just talk.
The February conference is supposed to result in a written “plan of action” to address sexual abuse in the Church and is aimed at protecting all kinds of potential victims, including children and people with disabilities.
In order for the conference to be successful, however, it must address the lack of uniform standards regarding sexual abuse cases in bishops’ conferences all over the world. While after the 2002 Boston scandal, the U.S. has taken measures to curb sexual abuse in the Church, instituting mandatory reporting of all allegations of sexual abuse and a zero tolerance policy for charged priests, many other countries have failed to follow suit. The lack of uniform standards globally in particular is problematic in that it not only allows each bishops’ conference to set its own standards, but also does nothing to condemn the branches that have no standards at all.
Lack of circulation of educational documents on sexual abuse has also posed a problem in tackling this global problem. While the Vatican Commission on child sex abuse has released guidelines for protecting children in the Church, these guidelines have not been distributed to bishops’ conferences across the globe, depriving the Church’s various branches of a critical resource in combating sexual assault.
Most importantly, it is critical that this conference not just act as a “band-aid” on the issue of sexual abuse of minors in the Church, creating the impression that the problem has been solved without actually generating any kind of real change, either in the Church’s standards regarding the aforementioned abuse cases or in the educational materials distributed to bishops’ conferences worldwide. John Allen, President of Crux Catholic Media, echoes Collins’ concerns: “If the meeting ends with statements of regret and of positive resolve but no concrete and meaningful measures to ensure accountability for abuse and coverup, it will backfire,” he notes.
In the situation Allen outlines, it is not only possible but likely that the conference will function as a band-aid, making it seem like the issue of sexual abuse in the Church is addressed and even solved to some extent, when in reality—particularly if no actionable policies or plans are drafted at the event—much remains to be done. It is critical that the conference is seen worldwide not as a solution to the issue of sexual abuse, but as a step in the forward direction. And with talk, action must follow.
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