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Analysis

Message from the bishops summit: The problem is everywhere

Pope Francis addressed cardinals and bishops during the Vatican summit for bishops on the sex-abuse crisis.
Pope Francis addressed cardinals and bishops during the Vatican summit for bishops on the sex-abuse crisis. (AFP/VATICAN MEDIA)

ROME — The unprecedented summit on clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has yet to produce major concrete reforms, but, over the past three days, at least one clear message has emerged: No church official, no matter where he comes from, should return thinking this isn’t a problem back home.

From the beginning of the scandals, there has been a persistent undercurrent of resistance to a major churchwide reckoning from leaders in locations where the crisis has yet to erupt, both in traditional centers of Catholic power, such as Italy, and in newer ones, such as Africa. Those church leaders have often referred to clerical abuse as largely an “American,” or an “Anglo-Saxon” or “Western” problem.

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But that mentality was challenged head-on during the summit.

“No bishop may say to himself, ‘This problem of abuse in the church does not concern me, because things are different in my part of the world,’ ” Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, said Thursday. “This, brothers and sisters, is just not true.”

Acknowledging that “we in leadership roles did not do enough,” Gracias said the “entire church must take an honest look [and] act decisively to prevent abuse from occurring in the future, and to do whatever possible to foster healing for victims.”

That the message came from Gracias is doubly significant — first because he’s a non-Westerner and second because, as a member of the pope’s hand-picked council of cardinal advisers, his words carry an informal seal of approval from Francis.

And on Saturday, one of just three women tapped to speak at the summit, Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria, reinforced the message.

“Probably like many of you, I have heard many Africans and Asians say that this is not our issue in countries in Africa and Asia. It is a problem in Europe, the Americas, Canada and Australia,” said Openibo, the first African leader of her religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.

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“The fact that there are huge issues of poverty, illness, war, and violence in some countries in the Global South does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored,” she said. “The church has to be proactive in facing it.”

Convened by Pope Francis, the summit featured church leaders from around the world and from across the Catholic spectrum, including the heads of Eastern Catholic churches and religious orders such as the Franciscans and Jesuits.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who heads the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, has largely stayed in the background during the summit, with other figures occupying the key roles by the pope’s side. But he did speak at a news conference Friday, and called for a report from the Vatican detailing who knew what and when about Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal recently defrocked for sexual abuse and misconduct.

Knowing what happened, O’Malley said, is “very important” when it comes to possible wrongdoing, as is addressing the “crimes, the betrayals, inflicted on so many children and vulnerable adults.”

Like other reformers, O’Malley said the church must be more transparent if it is to confront the problem of clerical abuse.

The four-day gathering closed Sunday morning with a talk and Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. It was not designed as a decision-making forum, so there was no immediate “result.”

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Nonetheless, there were at least two points that came up with sufficient regularity and emphasis as to seem plausible outcomes.

First, as a result of the summit, the Catholic Church is moving “much closer” to a worldwide policy of permanently removing priests from the ministry after a single case of abuse, said Archbishop Eamon Martin of Ireland. This is the so-called one-strike-and-you’re-out stance pioneered by American bishops amid the abuse scandals of 2002-2003 that began in Boston and radiated across the country.

“In the case of someone who has abused a child, I don’t think there’s any way they can return to pastoral ministry,” Martin said to reporters Saturday.

Even so, church leaders are debating whether such a policy means simple removal from active duty, or, in the case of clergy, being outright defrocked. While thousands have been expelled from the priesthood since the scandals began, that step is not automatic; some reformers believe it’s better to keep convicted abusers under church supervision rather than simply cutting them loose.

Martin, for instance, said survivors of sexual abuse have told him that expelling abusive priests might put them at “increased risk” of offending since they would no longer be monitored by the church.

The second takeaway from the gathering would appear to be a reconsideration of the concept of “pontifical secrecy,” which church officials have cited as a reason for not reporting accused abusers to police or refusing to reveal information on their cases.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a key papal ally, made the point strongly in a speech to his fellow prelates Saturday. He said that privacy issues — protecting sensitive information from people with malicious intent — is a legitimate aim. But concealing allegations and cases against church members from those who would have a legitimate right to know, he said, is not.

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Too much secrecy, Marx warned, “exposes us to the suspicion of coverup,” a fear founded in actual events.

“Files that could have documented these terrible deeds and those responsible were destroyed, or not even created,” Marx said. “Instead of perpetrators, the victims were [seen as a problem] and their voices suppressed.”

That point was echoed by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, the lone American on the organizing committee for the summit: “The reporting of an offense should not be impeded by the official secret or confidentiality rules.”

In the United States, one immediate result of this week’s meeting is likely to be the resumption of efforts within the conference of US bishops to develop stronger accountability measures for prelates accused of covering up abuse.

“I think we can go forward once we get back,” said Cardinal Daniel Di Nardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, referring to a request by the Vatican last year that the bishops hold off on approval of new protocols until the Rome summit.

The summit itself, however, exclusively featured church leaders and others with established reputations as reformers; there was no space allotted to officials who deny or minimize the scope of the problem, or who question the need for dramatic action, though observers say their numbers within church ranks are significant.

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That the Vatican would even stage such a high-profile assembly on clerical abuse and not allow a dissenting voice could be seen, in itself, as a step toward reform. But it remains to be seen what those other “concrete, effective measures” that Pope Francis called for on the opening day of the summit will be.


John L. Allen Jr., a former Globe associate editor, is now the editor of Crux, an independent news site covering the Catholic Church.