In the end, those concrete measures were a chimera — widely debated, held up to intense canonical scrutiny, but ultimately put off to some future date. The contrast with the pope’s own words could not have been sharper, or more disappointing.
Child sex abuse, the pope declared in his various remarks, is akin to human sacrifice, and the “wrath of God” should be visited upon the “ravenous wolves” who commit it. He called for an “all-out battle.”
His rhetoric suggested a no-holds-barred approach; so did his earlier pledges to apply a “zero-tolerance” policy, meaning, at the least, that any priest credibly accused of assaulting a minor would be removed from ministry.
Yet at the conclusion of four wrenching days in Rome — days when nearly 200 bishops and cardinals heard unstinting testimony and criticism by victims and their advocates — the result was dismayingly vague. What had been held up as a policymaking conference resembled more closely an encounter group, in which awareness was raised, sensitivity enhanced and heartfelt emotions expressed.
That’s not good enough — not for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, nor for the 70 million in the United States. For the U.S. bishops, the shortcomings in Rome should serve as a gauntlet thrown down. They must act in coming months.
A meaningful and, yes, concrete agenda for the U.S. bishops would start with taking up measures they were on the verge of adopting last November when the Holy See intervened to stop them. That would include establishing a code of conduct for bishops, who have been instrumental in covering up the church’s crimes, as well as a commission of lay Catholics to review allegations of misconduct by bishops. In addition, it would mean reversing the church’s steadfast opposition to changes in state laws that prohibit survivors of pedophile priests from filing lawsuits years after the abuse took place. Moreover, it would mean a shift in rhetoric that would recognize not only the church’s obligation to root out abuse but also its unique history as a haven for abusers.
Let the American bishops act if the pope will not.