The Vatican Sex-Abuse Summit Was Never Going to Undo the Harm

The Vatican Sex-Abuse Summit Was Never Going to Undo the Harm

The Vatican Sex-Abuse Summit Was Never Going to Undo the Harm

The left welcomed the pontiff because he was anti-authoritarian—but that’s exactly why the summit was a disappointment.


The unprecedented Vatican summit on the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis took place last week and it’s still not clear what, if anything, was accomplished. But what did you expect?

That question is usually posed in cynical tones, but here it’s asked sincerely. It would be an understatement to say that reactions to the summit have been split. Different hopes, different expectations are clearly at play here—just as they are in the reactions of those of us, both within and outside the church, who live far from Rome and rely on mainstream and social-media representations for our knowledge of the summit. But it’s reductive to simply blame the media for divisive representations of the church, because representing the actual lived experience of the church has never been easy.

I learned this the hard way. I had started writing about the sexual-abuse crisis in the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the attorney general’s report out of Pennsylvania. I was struck by the words of a man trying to describe what it felt like to be sexually abused by McCarrick and unable to speak. “So what you do is you clam up, and you stay inside your own little shoe box, and you don’t come out for 40 years.” The image of being shut up in a “shoe box” reminded me of the closet in which I had grown up as a gay Catholic boy, and that seemed like something worth reflecting on, if only for myself.

A few weeks after I had started writing, without any warning, the members of my parish were informed at Mass that our pastor had been removed because of a “boundary violation” involving an adult man. We were told that no civil crime had been committed, but that Father X would never again be allowed to engage in public ministry.

In the wake of that decision, a listening session was held at the church in which parishioners could express their feelings frankly, without fear of interruption. It’s hard to capture the anguished confusion I heard that night. “Father X was theatrical, warm and wonderful. “He was cold and disdainful.” “His shyness was easily mistaken for arrogance.” “He was scapegoated and used as an example because everyone knew he was gay. “He was targeted by radical Traditionalists who hate our parish, which is famous for welcoming LGBTQ Catholics.” “He was removed in compliance with the Dallas Charter enacted by the US bishops in 2002.” “He knew the terms of the charter and acknowledged breaking them.” “Who made the complaint?” “The privacy of the victim needs to be protected.” “Why weren’t we given more details about the violation?” “Why didn’t we have a say in Father X’s discipline?” “When accusations occurred in other places, common opinion in the parish was that the priest should be severely punished. Why is this different? Because it’s Father X? Because it’s our parish?” “The zero-tolerance policy of the Dallas Charter was brave and necessary.” “The zero-tolerance policy of the Dallas Charter needs to be amended to recognize that there are shades of gray.”

I had so much trouble holding all these discordant voices in my head that I put aside writing about the abuse crisis until now. Three things are obvious from that evening. The first is that priests are the objects of the complicated needs and projections of their congregants, and the demands they put upon him not only professionally, but personally. The second is that, 50 years after Vatican II tried to elevate the dignity of the laity, the roles they are supposed to play in the church are still ill-defined and limited.

This uncertainty plays a role in the final problem: The relationship between the individual parish and the church hierarchy is never straightforward. Stating it this way, however, in crisp, dry postulates, ignores the raw emotions at work here. Listening sessions were taking place in countless other parishes, tens of thousands of undocumented conversations scattered across the globe, and the fear of what might be getting said or done in those other places shaped a fantasy that our priest had been set up. No doubt, similar fantasies about what might be happening in my parish haunt the dreams of other Catholics as well.

As much as any hunger to impose authority from above, the papacy has always been empowered by local churches looking to Rome to settle their disputes and internal problems. It’s no surprise, then, that so many eyes were turned to the summit, and that so many were left angrily disappointed. The sharpest criticism has been directed at the homily Pope Francis delivered at the closing ceremony, particularly the opening paragraphs, in which he explains with almost pedantic detail that the sexual abuse of children happens in a variety of non-ecclesial environments and institutions, most disturbingly the family itself. In speaking to The Atlantic, Anne Barrett-Doyle, a longtime advocate for ecclesial accountability, calls this “one of his favorite diversionary tactics.”

Yet this apparent digression (or equivocation) on sexual abuse outside the church actually underscores why abuse is so much worse when it happens inside the church. As Francis goes on to state, “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.” According to Austen Ivereigh, Barrett-Doyle ignores the people in the room with Francis as he spoke. “Francis was implicitly addressing church leaders from Africa who had complained at the start of the summit that clerical sex abuse wasn’t their issue, and that what they had to tackle were other forms of child exploitation.” In effect, Barrett-Doyle and other Americans who saw this part of the speech as a diversion were forgetting that other local churches also demanded Francis’s attention.

They might also be overestimating the solidarity of the US laity on this point. I suspect that anyone who has frequented the Catholic blogosphere or social media has encountered the argument that schools, athletics, and other youth organizations are rife with abuse, but not subjected to the same level of scrutiny by the media. The people repeating this argument are not usually priests or bishops but laymen. Many Catholics would agree with Barrett-Doyle that Francis’s homily represents “a catastrophic misreading of the faithful.” The problem is that many others would disagree. In dismissing Francis’s words as a diversion, American critics of the homily—religious and secular—overlook an important argument that could be used in churches at home. Acknowledging that most sexual abuse happens outside the church does not diminish the seriousness of what is happening inside it. And with its own integrity in tatters, the ecclesiastical hierarchy is in no position to speak out against abuse elsewhere.

This assumes that discussion within the church is still possible. Catholic or not, readers might see the divisive situation I am describing within the church as very much like the political fragmentation taking place outside it. That resemblance is not accidental. As Massimo Faggioli recently noted, public opinion—and public rage—as shaped on social media is reconfiguring both church and state, and consequently the relationship between the two. It might surprise some readers when Faggioli asserts that, under Francis, “The Church actually welcomes secular justice,” but here Faggioli, who is a theologian and historian, is speaking not only of the ecclesiastical hierarchy but of the laity as well. This is in keeping with Francis’s ecclesiology, which, as Faggioli notes elsewhere, advocates for a more decentralized vision of the church than that of his immediate predecessors, one that emphasizes “the need for mutuality between the universal-central level and the local level in Roman Catholicism.” It is precisely this emphasis on collegiality that has allowed Francis’s opponents in the hierarchy—figures like Cardinal Raymond Burke and archbishops Charles Chaput and Carlo Maria Viganò—to attack him so forcefully.

The difficulties of maintaining collegiality in the face of confirmed authoritarians should be apparent to any observer of American politics. And while it is understandable that a discouraged laity would turn to secular authorities to clean up the church, Faggioli notes the risk that entails “where the rule of law and the freedom of the press are weaker than they are in established democracies.” One thinks of Duterte’s struggle with the bishops in the Philippines, or Jair Bolsonaro’s concern that “‘leftist’ leaders of the Catholic Church will fill the void created by Brazil’s weakened political left.” Progressives welcomed Francis precisely because he advocated for a less-authoritarian approach to the papacy. I might call it ironic that some of these same people now criticize him for failing to implement top-down action—were the pain of a boy’s shoe box and the anguish of a grieving parish not on my mind.

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