Martyn McLaughlin: Summit on abuse is test of the Pope’s moral authority

Last weekend's defrocking of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick came just ahead of the Vatican's latest summit on sexual abuse
Last weekend's defrocking of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick came just ahead of the Vatican's latest summit on sexual abuse
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The unprecedented gathering in Rome must deliver more than another round of apologies, writes Martyn McLaughlin

If you were to look through the recent announcements on the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh’s website, scroll through the tweets of Archbishop Leo Cushley, or happen across the sporadically updated online presence of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, you would be forgiven for not realising that Catholic leaders are due to gather tomorrow for one of the most significant gatherings in a generation.

The clerical sexual abuse summit taking place at the Vatican has been years, if not decades, in the making. The event, which will bring together 190 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world, will address an scandal that has engulfed the church at every level and on every continent. The question of whether it can recover from it will depend largely on the week ahead.

The Vatican has attempted to downplay expectations surrounding the four-day summit. Pope Francis no doubt realises that he will be unable to satisfy every wish of abuse survivors, but for the sake of his papacy and the dwindling moral authority of his church, he has to deliver something.

The tension surrounding the summit and what it must achieve has been evident these past few weeks. Last month, Pope Francis said he was mindful of “inflated expectations” over the gathering, and stressed that abuse was “a human problem everywhere”.

“If we resolve the issue within the church, we may be able to help solve it in society, in families,” he said. “But firstly, we need to become conscious of it, have the protocols, and move forward.”

Compare that language – and ambition – with the comments made at the weekend by Father Federico Lombardi, one of the the Vatican’s most senior figures, and the man tasked with moderating the summit.

“I am absolutely convinced that our credibility in this area is at stake,” the 71-year-old told reporters. “We have to get to the root of this problem and show our ability to undergo a cure as a church that proposes to be a teacher or it would be better for us to get into another line of work.”

The church, he added, must tackle the issue “with depth and without fear”. While he conceded there had been “resistance” by some bishops, he emphasised the need for courage and resolve, reasoning: “If we don’t commit ourselves to fight against these crimes, in society and in the church, then we are not fulfilling our duty.”

How curious it is to hear someone at the heart of the Vatican speak with the same sense of indignation and frustration that has long been felt by millions of ordinary Catholics around the world. Whether it is refreshing, however, will depend on what real change is brought about by the summit.

There have been calls for a global public registry of abusers, a change to universal church law which would set out a zero tolerance approach to abuse, and an open discussion of priest celibacy. What is more likely is yet another round of sincere, profound and unreserved apologies.

It is telling that Pope Francis chose the weekend before the gathering to dismiss Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood.

The former archbishop and cardinal, found guilty by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors, is the highest profile figure to be laicised in modern times. He was forced to resign as a cardinal last summer after a man publicly alleged that he had been sexually abused by the cleric from 1971.

His final dismissal has been held up by some as evidence of the Vatican’s new hardline stance on sexual abuse, and there is no doubt that the action taken has been decisive.

But the defrocking will not be enough to reignite those early flickering perceptions of the pontiff as a mould-breaker committed to root and branch reforms.

The Vatican’s removal of McCarrick is not only long overdue, but some abuse survivors believe it is a cynical attempt a “throw a bone” to dissenters days out from the summit.

Indeed, while there is concern that the McCarrick case will dominate proceedings at the summit, perhaps it should. It is, after all, a chance to ask about the other prelates who knew about his abuse and supported him as he slipped on the red robes.

Such questions are not only for the US church in answer, but Rome, where the disgraced McCarrick had his patrons.

Last year, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former papal ambassador to the US, wrote a public letter calling for the resignation of Pope Francis, alleging that he knew of the allegations against McCarrick for years.

The chances of such issues being addressed within the summit’s remit are non-existent, but exactly what is the best case scenario? Its ultimate goals are hazy, to say the least.

According to Pope Francis, its purpose is to educate bishops about accountability and transparency, as well as how to handle complaints from victims. The summit, he has said, will be a “catechesis”, or a teaching session.

The implication is that the event will reach out to those bishops who believe sexual abuse to be a scourge which only afflicts the church in the western world.

Correcting such ill-conceived ideas held by those in denial about the problem in their own countries is essential, but if the summit’s ambitions are set so low, it seems inevitable that survivors here and further afield are in for more disappointment.