Commentary

Vatican Summit Must Address Clerical Abuse in All Its Forms

By Nora Sullivan | September 13, 2018 | 2:22pm EDT
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - SEPTEMBER 12: Pope Francis greets priests in St, Peter's square during his weekly audience on September 12, 2018 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke, has confirmed that Pope Francis will meet on Thursday with the leaders of the episcopal conference of the United States. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Pope Francis announced his intention to hold a world meeting of presidents from every Catholic bishops’ conference to discuss the problem of the sexual abuse of minors. This is welcome news given the reports on sexual abuse by the clergy in Pennsylvania and Germany, as well as the shocking revelations about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most influential bishops of the last 30 years.

As the Archdiocese of New York reported, allegations of sexual abuse against a minor by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were found to be “credible and substantiated.” There are also reports that he sexually harassed seminarians.

Further, on Sept. 13, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia and ordered an inquiry into allegations that he sexually harassed adults. Bransfield, reportedly, is a long-time associate of McCarrick.

The planned summit with the bishop conference leaders is scheduled to take place in February 2019. A spokeswoman for the Holy See, Paloma Garcia Ovejero, stated that the focus of the meeting would be on the “prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.”

The need for such a summit is undeniable. The demands from the Catholic laity that something be done are becoming impossible for the Vatican to ignore. The seemingly endless parade of stories of sexual abuse, intimidation, and nefarious cover-ups — on top of the allegation that Pope Francis himself may have turned a blind-eye to reports on McCarrick — have tested the faith of many Catholics and, understandably, fueled righteous anger.

However, so far, the scope of the intended summit seems too narrow. An outcome that is simply more of the same is one the Church cannot accept. Statements that condemn obviously horrific and sinful acts and apologies issued in the language of a press release just won’t cut it.

This meeting must encompass several key factors. Firstly, it must address all sexual abuse and misconduct alleged against priests and bishops, regardless of their position in the Church. One of the reasons McCarrick was able to operate with impunity for decades (despite many within the Church being aware of his predatory nature) was because his status and political clout apparently shielded him from scrutiny and prevented victims from speaking out.

Additionally, while it is essential for the Vatican to address the abuse of children, which has dropped dramatically since the reforms of 2002, it must also acknowledge sexual abuse elsewhere in the Church, involving bishops, seminarians and the laity.

For instance, there are many allegations that McCarrick, in addition to his sexual abuse of a boy, sexually harassed seminarians. Since that story broke, alleged revelations of abuse at several seminaries as well as allegations of a toxic culture at some seminaries have emerged.

These are issues that deserve the close attention of the Vatican, especially as the future of the Church is so dependent on priestly formation programs.

Secondly, the Vatican must investigate the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse — in all its forms — and work to ensure that all clergy (including any bishops or cardinals) who have participated in such concealment are met with justice. This sickness has spread due to silence and corruption. The Church must combat it with justice and transparency.

Finally, lay involvement is critical. While the bishops participating in this meeting play a vital role in the Church, this crisis deserves the inclusion of a larger, representative body of the faithful. Lay Catholics have suffered tremendously in this crisis and should have a seat at the table as the Church seeks to expose these evils and bring an end to them.

It is encouraging that the Vatican is working to address these very painful realities. However, examining just one part of the problem is almost as bad as not looking into it at all. If we only shine a light into one corner, we won’t discover what wickedness flourishes in the dark. It’s time to let the light flood in and drive this evil out, wherever it lurks -- no matter how painful or costly. Only then can we move on.

Nora Sullivan is a Digital Communications Writer at the MRC. Ms. Sullivan holds a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from University College Dublin.

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