Pope Francis has called for a meeting of the leaders of all the bishops’ conferences around the world to talk about the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse problem. The February meeting in Rome will come months after a grand jury reported widespread molestation in Pennsylvania, years after the Spotlight investigation uncovered abuse and cover-ups by Church leaders in Boston, and decades after much of the abuse took place.
It’s the quintessential example of “too little too late.”
The meetings will be held from Feb. 21 to 24, according to the Vatican, which added that the pope had “amply reflected” on the issue with his top council of cardinal advisers during three days of meetings that ended on Wednesday.
Many survivors of abuse, and people who campaign on their behalf, have lamented that the letters and the power struggles they have uncorked in the Vatican have eclipsed the central issue of protecting children from abuse within the church.
The February meetings that Francis has called are intended to put the issue front and center again. For decades, abuse festered in the papacy of John Paul II, as many in the Vatican ignored accusations, which was portrayed as a problem of the Anglophone, or English-speaking, countries fueled by anti-Catholic news outlets.
I’m glad the pope, only after three days of meetings with top officials, decided that raping children was a serious enough problem that he should gather Church leaders in one spot to see if they could maybe kinda sorta do something about it. (But not for another several months. Because priorities.)
To be fair, he’s meeting with U.S. Church leaders this week, and the February meeting is more of an acknowledge that this is a worldwide problem, not one confined to English-speaking countries. Still, there’s a lack of self-awareness if they think anyone is impressed by their ability to convene and discuss these problems long long long after reporters and victims uncovered the abuse.
It comes on the heels of a damning report coming out of Germany:
The U.S. isn’t alone in digging into its past. On Wednesday, German media reported that a church-commissioned study on abuse in the German church detailed 3,677 abuses cases between 1946 and 2014, with more than half of the victims aged 13 or younger and most boys. Every sixth case involved rape and at least 1,670 clergy were involved, according to Spiegel Online and Die Zeit, which said they obtained the report that was due to be released Sept. 25.
So what should we expect to come out of this meeting? The bare minimum ought to be a promise to suspend those accused of abuse, expel those who either commit a crime or cover it up, and mandatory reporting to law enforcement authorities for anyone who learns of an accusation. (That would apply to what priests hear in the confession booth, too.) They could go further, saying that priests can get married, giving them a healthy sexual outlet, or creating a structure of accountability that doesn’t involve Vatican oversight. They could stun the world and collectively announce their resignations as an act of contrition.
Really, we shouldn’t expect anything. If the Vatican took this crisis seriously, solutions would’ve been implemented long ago.
If the Church wanted to take action on abuse, it would’ve happened decades ago. At this point, the February gathering seems like little more than a response to bad press. It’s an attempt to act like they’re taking the problem seriously.
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