IN A recent letter to U.S. bishops, Pope Francis called for a “change of mindset” to regain credibility forfeited by the Catholic Church after nearly two decades of temporizing, equivocation and half-measures to address clerical sex abuse. In fact, the pontiff himself, whose response to the scandal has been a fog of mixed messages, would benefit from this advice. Just as important, as he prepares for a meeting of some 130 top bishops from around the world — the Holy See’s most wide-ranging attempt yet to grapple with the scandal — what is needed is a concrete blueprint that will shift the church toward a new era of accountability and transparency.
Those are among the stated goals of the meeting, called by the pope, of the presidents of the world’s Conferences of Catholic Bishops, scheduled for Feb. 21 to 24 in Rome. Yet, rather than identifying specific agenda items that would signal a no-nonsense new approach, the Vatican has tried to lower expectations. Francis says the meeting will be an occasion for deep “discernment.” New policies would help more.
A good start would be the establishment of a muscular new mechanism, including lay members of the church, that would enable the Vatican to investigate and remove bishops and other senior clerics implicated in covering up for pedophile priests. Even now, more than 17 years after revelations of systematic abuse and coverups first rocked the American church, the wall of impunity that has long protected bishops is only gradually starting to crack.
In the United States, the church must also drop its largely successful efforts to block changes in state law that would allow adults who were once child victims of abuse to bring civil lawsuits against their abusers and the dioceses that enabled them. Owing to pressure by the church and insurance companies, only a handful of states have, so far, allowed such lawsuits. It’s hypocrisy on the church’s part to pledge “zero tolerance” for pedophile priests while lobbying resolutely to impede legislation that would allow victims to seek a measure of justice in the courts.
A genuine change of mind-set would also mean a shift in tone by church officials at all levels. Many implicitly excuse the church’s epidemic of child sex abuse as no more than a reflection of society’s own problem with the same blight. It’s a fact that pedophilia isn’t limited to the church; it’s also a fact that no other large institution has been similarly plagued by the scale and scope of abuse that has beset the church, or by such massive systematic, institutional foot-dragging in the face of reform efforts.
Dismayingly, senior Vatican officials have sought to downgrade expectations for this month’s bishops’ conference. A top organizer, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, said the meeting is no more than “a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect.” Comments like that seem tailor-made to defuse any sense of urgency. And if, after so many years, the church feels no urgency, then it cannot expect to stanch the hemorrhage of credibility and trust it has suffered.