Never in the history of the Roman Catholic Church has a pope ordered bishops from around the world to come together and consider how many priests abuse children sexually and how many church officials cover for the abusers. The scandal of clergy sex abuse has deep roots in church history, but church leaders have been notoriously reluctant to acknowledge it and deal with the consequences.
Not surprisingly, when Pope Francis summoned more than 100 bishops to a meeting in Rome to address the "Protection of Minors in the Church," the announcement raised expectations that it could mark a turning point in the Church's lagging response to the ongoing clergy abuse crisis. The three-day meeting begins Thursday.
In the weeks that followed the Pope's announcement, however, U.S. Catholics in particular have become disappointed over his characterization of the summit as a gathering that will merely feature "prayer and discernment," hardly an ambitious vision for what could have been a momentous event.
"That offers little solace to American Catholics who feel their own church is in need of reform," says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "I think the bold moves that a lot of people are going to want to see are very unlikely to happen."
I think the bold moves that a lot of people are going to want to see are very unlikely to happen.Kathleen Sprows Cummings
The scourge of clergy sex abuse became evident in the United States much earlier than in other countries, and U.S. Catholics have progressed further in their determination to deal with the crisis. Under pressure from abuse survivors and their advocates, numerous dioceses have publicly identified hundreds of priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct, in order to warn communities that might otherwise not know of their record.
Such scrutiny has extended to U.S. bishops, especially after an explosive grand jury report in 2018 on the abuse of more than 1,000 children by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania. The report revealed that bishops in the state "weren't just aware of what was going on; they were immersed in it. And they went to great lengths to keep it secret."
In response, U.S. bishops prepared a new set of reforms, including the formation of a special commission to review complaints against bishops who fail to take action to prevent abuse.
The bishops' plans were thwarted in November, however, when Pope Francis said he wanted to deal with the abuse crisis on a global basis and announced his plans for a summit.
"We were ready for some proposals, [but] the proposals were not received well by the Holy See," says Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "So we were disappointed. But we continue to work, and we hope the [Rome] meeting will be of help."
Survivors demand action
With Pope Francis taking the reform initiative away from U.S. bishops, he now faces the demands of abuse survivors on his own. One group, Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests, drafted a letter to the pope demanding action. Having initially focused individually on abusive priests, the group has now redirected its attention to bishops who have allowed priests under their jurisdiction to go unpunished.
"There must be a zero-tolerance policy not only for the abuser, but for those who enable abuse as well," the group said in its letter.
"Those people to me are the bigger criminals," says SNAP board member Becky Ianni, who hand delivered the letter to the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. "They covered up abuse, and they allowed more and more children to be put in harm's way. That breaks my heart."
Ianni, who was sexually violated by her family priest as a 9-year-old girl, says she and her fellow survivors never had much faith that U.S. bishops would take effective action on their own.
"The pope is in control," she says. "Cardinals and bishops can't control each other, so if something is going to happen, it's going to have to come from Pope Francis."
There is scant evidence, however, that the Pope is prepared at this week's summit to propose any new accountability measures directed at bishops or cardinals.
He's a pastoral pope. He's not the sheriff of the Catholic Church.Father Thomas Reese
"If this meeting were to have any real impact, it would require Pope Francis to come in and lay down the law and say, 'This is what you've got to do. Go home and do it,'" says Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and frequent commentator on Vatican developments for the Religion News Service. "But that's just not his personality. He's a pastoral pope. He's not the sheriff of the Catholic Church."
Opportunity for education
Instead, Vatican aides say the pope sees the Rome summit as an opportunity for "catechesis," or religious education, for the bishops in attendance from around the world.
"The goal is that all of the bishops clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors," according to Vatican Spokesman Alessandro Gisotti.
Given that Catholic bishops outside the U.S., especially in the Global South, have lagged in their recognition of the abuse crisis, that goal is likely to mean that American Catholics won't find much satisfaction in the aftermath of the Rome meeting.
A suggestion from Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago and one of the summit organizers, that the Catholic leadership in the U.S. should align with other church leaders in the world brought a sharp response from Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org.
"This would be a step backwards," Doyle says. "It would undo years of slow but real progress. While the U.S. bishops' norms need improvement, they are by far more effective than the norms of any other bishops' conference we've studied."
The U.S. reform agenda in response to the clergy abuse crisis has actually moved beyond demands of the church leadership, with more attention to the role that civil law enforcement might play. Several state attorneys general have initiated their own investigations of abuse cases and are demanding that church authorities turn over relevant records.
Against that background, the Rome summit may have minimal importance for efforts in the United States to deal with the clergy abuse crisis.
"I would love for the church to commit to saying, 'We're going to find out what happened and come to a reckoning of this,'" says Notre Dame's Kathleen Sprows Cummings. "I don't see that happening, and at this point, I think we have to look to the civil authorities to do that."