Thomas Reese: Five Reasons the Pope’s Clergy Sex Abuse Meeting in Rome Will Fail

Pope Francis attends an audience with the members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings at the Sala Regia, at the Vatican, on Jan. 7, 2019. Francis says next month’s meeting of bishops from around the world aims to “shed full light” on clergy sex abuse and covers-ups. He called the abuse of minors “one of the vilest and most heinous crimes conceivable.” (Ettore Ferrari/Pool Photo via AP)

Next month’s meeting in Rome, called by Pope Francis to deal with the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, may well be a failure before it even starts.

The stakes for the meeting have been ratcheted up, at least for the American church, as the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse has summoned up new scrutiny of the church’s response, from the pews and from government officials; then, in November, the Vatican squelched a vote at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting on measures designed to hold the hierarchy accountable for not dealing with abuse.

Now, more than 100 presidents of episcopal conferences from all over the world, plus a dozen or so other participants, are headed to Rome for a four-day conference beginning Feb. 21. According to the Vatican, the meeting will focus on three main themes: responsibility, accountability and transparency.

There are five reasons this meeting will fail.

First, four days is much too short a time to deal with such an important and complicated issue. The Vatican says the meeting will include “plenary sessions, working groups, moments of common prayer and listening to testimonies, a penitential liturgy and a final Eucharistic celebration.”

If each participant speaks only once for five minutes during the plenary sessions, that would consume over 12 hours — almost half the time for the meeting. Add to that speeches from the pope, victims and experts, as well as time for small group discussions and prayer, and the time is gone.

Most major meetings of bishops in Rome, such as last October’s synod of bishops on young people, last a month. Even at that, synods have always felt rushed, with little time at the end to prepare and approve a report. To think that the February meeting can accomplish anything in such a short time is not supported by experience.

Second, the expectations for this meeting are so high that it will be impossible to measure up.

Any meeting called by the pope raises expectations, but this one addresses a high-profile issue that has dogged the church for decades. It’s the first meeting of its kind at the Vatican, and the media have been anticipating it in numerous stories.

In addition, having sidelined the efforts of U.S. bishops in November, the meeting must come up with a way to hold bishops accountable, or it will make the excuse look unwarranted and phony.

A lone protester stands outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Third, a strength of this meeting is that it will include presidents of episcopal conferences from all over the world. These are some of the most important bishops from their countries. But the cultures and legal systems of the participants vary tremendously, which will make agreement on policies and procedures difficult.

Many bishops in the Global South do not believe that sex abuse of minors is a problem in their countries. They see it as a First World problem.

This is in part because many Global South bishops have no idea how bad the problem is. In their traditional cultures, victims of abuse are very reluctant to come forward to report the abuse to the church or civil authorities.

As a result, too many bishops around the world are making the same mistakes that the U.S. bishops made before 2002, when coverage of abuse in Boston encouraged thousands of victims to come forward. The bishops deny the problem; they treat it as a sin, not a crime; they don’t listen to the victims; they believe the priest when he says he will never do it again; they keep him in ministry; they cover up.

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Source: Religion News Service