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Analysis | John L. Allen Jr.

Vatican pendulum swings from theater to substance

The pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisors from around the world features Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston.Getty Images/File

In Rome the pendulum is swinging from public theater to behind-the-scenes substance this week, as two closed-door meetings tackle two of the most serious challenges facing Pope Francis: Vatican reform and the child sexual abuse scandals.

Following Sunday’s massive canonization ceremony for Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisors from around the world is meeting April 28-30 to ponder a reorganization of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.

Immediately afterwards, the new “Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors” instituted by Francis in December to lead the clean-up effort from the abuse scandals will have its first meeting.


The sequence is not coincidental, as one figure sits on both important bodies: Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, the lone American in both cases.

In truth, the “G8” council by now is more akin to a “G9”, since once again the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is joining the discussions. Insiders take it as a sign that Parolin, named to the post traditionally seen as the Vatican’s “Prime Minister” in October, has won the pontiff’s trust.

As is his custom, Francis is sitting in on the meetings but generally not saying much, preferring to listen to the discussion without injecting himself into it.

This is the fourth meeting of the council, created by Francis shortly after his election to better involve leaders of local churches from around the world in the decision-making process in Rome. This time they’re studying proposals for a “reorganization” of the various pontifical councils, generally understood to be a euphemism for down-sizing.

The Vatican currently has twelve pontifical councils, virtually all of them created since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), such as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Pontifical Council for the Family, and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. These offices are generally seen as having limited political influence, more akin to think tanks than decision-making departments.


Many observers have long complained that there’s too much overlap and duplication of effort among the various councils, and several proposals have been put before the cardinals for eliminating some and consolidating others.

That reform package may also include the idea of a new “super-dicastery,” the technical Vatican term for a department, dedicated to the church’s laity. The Vatican presently has congregations for bishops, clergy and religious orders, but not for the ordinary lay members who make up the overwhelming majority of the Catholic population.

On Tuesday, the council also heard a presentation by Joseph F.X. Zahra, a Maltese economist who leads a body created by Francis last summer to study the Vatican’s economic structures, and who’s also the senior lay member of a new council to oversee Vatican finances.

In an early March interview with the Globe, Zahra vowed that the new structure would prevent the sort of financial scandals that have rocked the Vatican repeatedly, such as an affair last summer involving a Vatican accountant allegedly enmeshed in a plot to smuggle millions in cash.

“We’re building a system of controls that will ensure these scandals never happen again,” Zahra said.

Council members may also consider the idea of a new position called “Moderator of the Curia,” to coordinate the work of the various Vatican departments that historically have not always communicated well among themselves.


A Vatican spokesman said today that while the pope can make ad hoc decisions in the meantime, a final draft of a comprehensive reorganization of the curia probably won’t be complete until 2015.

O’Malley told the Globe that the timing may also depend on whether Francis comes up with some other topic he also wants the cardinals to discuss.

“It’s whatever the Holy Father wants to consult us about,” O’Malley said, adding that “he’s full of surprises.”

On the sex abuse front, the new pontifical commission will meet May 1-3. At the moment it’s composed of eight members appointed directly by Francis

In addition to O’Malley, the other members are:

- Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical abuse and an outspoken critic of the church’s failures in responding to the scandals.

- German Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, the academic vice-rector of the Gregorian University in Rome and head of its Institute of Psychology. Zollner coordinated a major anti-abuse conference in Rome in 2012 called “Towards Healing and Renewal.”

- Hanna Suchocka, a former Prime Minister of Poland and currently Poland’s ambassador to the Vatican.

- Claudio Papale, an Italian lay expert on church law who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Urbaniana University.

- Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychologist who’s written widely on the effects of sexual abuse and exploitation on children.

- Baroness Sheila Hollins, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and current president of the British Medical Association who’s frequently consulted on child development issues in the U.K.


- Argentinian Jesuit Fr. Humberto Miguel Yáñez, who was received by the future pope into the Jesuit order in 1975 and who studied under him at an Argentine Jesuit college.

Though the Vatican has not released an agenda for the meeting, sources told the Globe that one order of business will be to finalize a legal document, called a motu proprio, for the pope’s signature that would give the commission formal standing in the Vatican.

More broadly, members are also expected to discuss other people they may want to bring on board, with a special eye to including regions of the world not presently represented such as Africa and Asia.

In a recent interview with the Globe, Zollner said the commission intends to adopt “an unwavering commitment to putting the victims first.”

“The church also has to do whatever is in its power and ability to prevent future abuse,” Zollner said.

Another topic likely to surface this week is the impending Vatican appearance before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, where the Vatican’s record on child abuse is once again expected to come under fire.

Earlier in the year, the U.N. Committee for the Rights of the Child blasted the Vatican for fostering a culture of “impunity” for abusers, and also broadly criticized Catholic teaching on matters of sexual morality such as abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

Members of the commission are likely to ponder how best to engage this sort of criticism, so as not to come off as defensive but at the same time to underscore what they regard as significant reforms adopted in recent years.


John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook.