"Men and nations behave wisely," Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once observed, "when they have exhausted all other resources." As the Catholic Church nears its 17th year of sexual abuse scandal, its hierarchy appears determined to fully exhaust every option before settling on the proper course of action: full disclosure and accountability. Even a recent step in the right direction raises issues as to whether the church recognizes the seriousness of the moment.
On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has called a meeting of presidents from each conference of bishops to discuss new steps to prevent abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. The move bypasses the College of Cardinals, at least in form, and puts the field leadership of the church in direct conference with the pontiff rather than filtered through the Vatican curia. The announcement came out ahead of an urgent audience with the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston archdiocese, as well as other American bishops responding to pressure from their parishioners and the media. At the same time, Cardinal Donald Wuerl — mired in controversy after a Pennsylvania grand jury cited numerous occasions where he failed to act properly when dealing with abusers in the priesthood — will discuss resigning his post at the archdiocese of Washington, D.C., with Pope Francis.
On the plus side, this convocation shows that the pontiff recognizes that the abuse scandal involves the entire church, and not just the anglophones. A leaked report from an independent investigation in Germany on the same day as the Vatican's announcement documented over 3,600 victims of sexual abuse over the last 70 years, involving more than 1,600 priests. Many of the records within the church had been "destroyed or manipulated," according to the report, meaning that the totals for both are likely well north of that mark. By going directly to the conference presidents in what is being called a "personal meeting," Francis will have the opportunity to get a direct briefing on the scope and depth of the scandal of abuse, and to outline further steps to deal with it.
However, the report from Germany highlights a topic missing from the announcement: the cover-up for abusers within church hierarchy, which has been going on for decades and has continued right to the present day. The Catholic Church in the U.S. created a significant response to stop abuse itself via the Dallas Charter in 2002, most recently revised this year. What has not happened is an accounting for the systematic efforts to protect priest-abusers by shuffling them within and between dioceses, paying off victims, and ignoring complaints from seminarians of endemic sexual pressure. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose to one of the most prominent positions in the American church despite reported widespread knowledge of predatory behavior, knowledge that reportedly went as far as the Vatican and to the leadership of the American church.
Furthermore, the timing of this convocation seems very odd. Why put off this meeting for five months, especially with the ordinary synod set to start in early October? Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago issued a statement endorsing the February meeting as a demonstration of how serious Pope Francis is "about addressing sexual abuse by clergy as a top priority in the global church." A five-month wait for a meeting on sexual abuse might seem like lightning speed on Vatican time, but it seems like a stall tactic everywhere else. That's especially true given the 16 years since the first explosion of scandal from Boston, and even more so in the context of the decades of abuse that took place around the world.
Mostly, however, the structure of this meeting doesn't leave much confidence of progress. The episcopacies involved in this meeting are the same that spent decades either covering up the abuse or doing their best to avoid dealing with it. The clerics have had sixteen years to clean up their acts, and they have failed to take the basic first steps of scandal resolution: full disclosure. Only in a few instances has that been imposed on the bishops, such as in Pennsylvania with a grand jury or in Minneapolis/St. Paul by a lawsuit and criminal indictment.
It's time to call in the full Body of Christ to impose accountability on its leadership. That means finding a formal role for the laity in every diocese to oversee its operations, and having a seat at the table at this convocation to demand action now.
That may discomfort some Catholics used to a strong hierarchical structure, which serves the church well on specific issues. It allows for doctrinal integrity and consistency, applying the teachings of 2,000 years to every corner of the world. Hierarchical control also ensures the integrity of the Eucharist, the center of our communion with Jesus Christ and our connection to the Church Triumphant through the Mass. Catholics do not need to adopt congregationalism in order to provide accountability — or at least they shouldn't.
However, not all operations require Roman collars. Day-to-day business in the diocese and in the seminary, including the handling of complaints about priests and bishops, could easily be tasked to lay employees with independent lines of authority to central lay leadership within national conferences. (This would also free up priests and some bishops in administrative functions to work in parishes, where the pastoral needs are also reaching crisis proportions.) While those lay functions would eventually come under the authority of the bishops at the national level, it would create a long line of people able to blow the whistle on abuse and especially on cover-ups, with enough credibility to make sure it sticks. Had the Vatican and bishops moved to create such a structure 16 years ago, this crisis might have been fully disclosed and well along the way to recovery.
The lack of outside accountability allowed the abuse to fester and become normalized within dioceses. This meeting in five months, as interesting as it might be in some ways, still has that fatal flaw of insularity, the same fatal flaw that prevents resolution. Until Pope Francis and the bishops open the records and install mechanisms of accountability to the laity, this summit will only accomplish what Eban predicted — the exhaustion of all other options before finally doing the right thing.