Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Reflections on the Eve of the Summit

[Preliminary Note—None of this should be interpreted as being directed at those who were victims or family members of victims. Nor should it be interpreted as telling them to “be quiet.” This is about understanding the issues and the purpose of the summit while avoiding condemning it for not doing what it never was supposed to.]

Let’s be clear on something. The Abuse Summit being held in the Vatican is not going to be an Inquisition. It’s not going to drag McCarrick before the body in chains. Bishops won’t be forced to accuse themselves of covering up or being part of a “homosexual cabal.” There won’t be an auto da fé. It won’t be an ecumenical council either. We won’t see the summit drastically changing Church disciplines or teachings. Anyone expecting this (especially the “Summit will be a failure unless they do X” crowd) will be disappointed.

What there will be is a meeting aimed at making the bishops aware of their obligations in the face of reports of abuse, and making clear that this is not just an “American (or western) problem.” There will be discussion of what worked or failed to work. There will be listening to victims. And there will be prayer. The success or failure will not be in what is said and done. It will be in what each country’s bishops do in response.

Notice the vast difference between the two visions. It seems like some people who hate the Pope and some people who want the Church to drastically change her teachings in general are setting expectations that they know will not be met so they can claim failure and allege “coverup” as the reason.

But there are things we need to do to prepare for the summit. First, we need to realize that when corruption festers, it takes years, even decades to clean up. That’s because we not only have to track down people responsible, but also identify and correct those false ideas that might have led people to think that staying silent was a legitimate option. This means educating Catholics about the difference between being faithful to the Church and being silent because a member of the clergy abuses his authority by abuse or coverup.

Second, we need to recognize this isn’t the first step finally taken for opposing abuse. It’s not the final step that will fix everything either. The Church has made many attempts to prevent abuse and ensure that the abusers did not go unpunished. Some worked. Some didn’t. For example, when you read the 1917 Code of Canon Law, you see that there were rules that mandated that the bishop be informed of abuse by a priest in a timely manner [†]. For example:

Technically, if these canons had been followed by all parties, this could have prevented McCarrick from getting away with his crimes for so long.

Unfortunately, these canons didn’t understand the victim might be unable to overcome trauma and shame to come forward. Nor did it allow for the possibility that those who were supposed to pass that information on would fail to carry out their duties. It was also assumed that an abuser priest acted out of attraction to a specific person, and moving the priest away from that victim would end the problem. These assumptions were obviously wrong, and probably added to the sense of suffering for the victims.

So, we can see it’s not a case of “the Church became lax after Vatican II.” We can’t just “go back,” because the known cases from the 1930s until Vatican II happened during this supposed strong period. What the Church is doing now is recognizing where procedures for dealing with these accusations have been ineffective, and working on sharing where the procedures have succeeded.

And in some cases they have. In the United States, the of number of cases peaked in the 1980s, and then began to decline. Since 2002, after the Dallas Accords, new cases of abuse have fallen sharply. The new revelations of priests who abused and bishops who covered up were not recent cases. They were old cases recently uncovered [§]. Yes, they should have been revealed when the other cases were discovered. Yes, this lack of disclosure seriously damaged the faithful’s trust in the Magisterium of the Church.

But, we cannot assume everyone must have known and everyone must be guilty. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, there have been many bishops in the dioceses. Some made decisions that enabled abusers, but some did not. The Church cannot punish the innocent. She must investigate to see who knew and willfully covered up or refused to report. They must be held accountable. The problem is, those are not the only bishops out there. For example:
  • Bishops who sincerely believed the advice from psychiatrists that the priest should be moved.
  • Bishops who succeeded the bishop who made the decision, not knowing about the problem.
  • Bishops who assumed that their predecessors had properly dealt with any problems.
  • Bishops who proactively try to root out problems when they become aware of them [@].
None of those groups of bishops covered up, and should not be punished as if they did. So when people say the bishops instead of some bishops, that response is unjust. No matter how vile the crime, the person who is not guilty is not guilty.

So, yes, call for justice. It’s your right under canon 212—so long as you do it reverently, and give religious submission of intellect and will to the teaching authority of the Church. But don’t call for vengeance or scapegoats. That’s incompatible with our faith.

Please keep these things in mind as the media reports (and probably misreports) on the Summit. Remember what they are attempting to do, and judge the summit on that. 


[†] While some states in the US and some nations like Australia are trying to violate the seal of Confession by forcing priests to reveal what was said, the Church did have a rule that if the victim confessed their part, the priest was supposed to tell them of their obligation to tell the bishop. Judging by the number of cases that took decades to come forward, this policy obviously didn’t work. The 1983 code eliminated the one month requirement for the victim:

[§] In the Pennsylvania report, the number of cases that were not past the statute of limitations was in the low single digits.

[@] After discovering he was misinformed about the Barrios case, Pope Francis was solidly in this camp.

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