By Ed Condon
At a press conference in Rome this morning, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago underscored the scope and expectations around this week’s global Vatican summit on sexual abuse.
The cardinal made it clear that the three-day meeting was strictly dealing with the abuse of minors, and would not look at wider issues of clerical sexual abuse – most notably the sexual abuse of adults, including seminarians.
Cupich warned that “including other topics” would “inflate expectations” and distract from “the task at hand.”
The cardinal’s comments came barely 48 hours after it was announced that Theodore McCarrick had been expelled from the clerical state for a number of sexual abuse-related offences, including adult seminarians in dioceses he formerly led.
The hour-long question and answer session offered more details about the aims of the summit, which will include the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world. But the scrupulously narrow focus on minors, and the stated objectives of the conference raise a number of questions about what American Catholics, including many bishops, can hope to see from Rome in response to months of scandal.
The clear goal of the meeting is to impress upon the world’s bishops the seriousness of dealing with child sexual abuse at all levels of the Church hierarchy. To this end, Cupich highlighted measures already in place in the United States which, he noted, were proving successful, such as safe environment programs and enhanced screening of seminary candidates.
More broadly, bishops in the United States have noted the effectiveness of the 2002 reforms brought in by the Dallas Charter and USCCB Essential Norms, which have coincided with a steep decline in reported abuse cases.
But if the wider purpose of the three-day meeting is to impress the seriousness of the child abuse crisis on bishops from elsewhere, and even underscore effective measures already in place in the U.S., American focus remains on accountability for bishops and abuse cases of all kinds involving them personally.
Discussing the future of episcopal accountability, Cupich made a surprising reference to Come una madre amorivole, the 2016 motu proprio issued by Pope Francis setting out legal mechanisms for reporting and handling complaints against bishops, including for negligence or abuse of office in abuse cases.
“It is the document Come una madre amorivole that outlines procedures for holding bishops accountable,” Cupich said. The reference to Come una madre was surprising to many, since Pope Francis had previously said in public that he had abandoned these very processes.
During the inflight press conference on his return from Dublin in October last year, Pope Francis said he had effectively junked the procedures of Come una madre because they “weren’t practical and it also wasn’t convenient for the different cultures of the bishops that had to be judged.”
Francis even went as far as expressing frustration that prominent reform advocate Marie Collins, herself a survivor of sexual abuse and a former member of Francis’ own Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was “a bit fixated” with the document not being used.
For Cupich to suggest that Come una madre was once again a living document suggests a possible second papal reversal by Francis on his own reforms, even though his original reservations seemed to center on the very global applicability this week’s summit is meant to address.
In November, an instruction from the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops prevented U.S. bishops from voting on a raft of proposed measures aimed at increasing episcopal accountability – reforms which would have addressed many of the gaps left by the non-adoption of Come una madre in the first place.
The move left many frustrated but, on Monday, Cupich called the Baltimore measures “problematic” and said he did not believe they would have been adopted even if a vote had taken place.
Cupich floated an alternative proposal of his own during the Baltimore meeting. Reportedly drafted in concert with Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Cupich’s plan would rely upon existing structures within metropolitan provinces, instead of the creation of an independent national body to oversee complaints against bishops.
Both the original proposals and the so-called “metropolitan model” were turned over to a special USCCB committee for further study, and are expected to be discussed again in more detail when the bishops next meet, in June of this year.
Despite the Baltimore setback, Cupich said, bishops’ conferences would have an important role to play in the future.
“The Holy Father does want episcopal conferences to take responsibility, that was never a question, but we have to do it in such a way that we work together with each other — that is part of synodality — that is part of the collegiality that this conference wanted to highlight,” Cupich said Monday.
What role this will be remains to be seen and, at least so far as it extends to episcopal abuse of adults like McCarrick’s, it seems unlikely it will become much clearer during this week’s summit.
One thing the Chicago cardinal did say was that bishops have a personal responsibility to face up to.
“The Holy Father wants to make it clear to the bishops around the world, that each one of them has to claim responsibility and ownership for this problem… to make sure that people understand, on an individual basis as bishops, what their responsibilities are.”
Many commentators have noted in recent months that personal initiative and ownership have been distinctly lacking in some American bishops response to recent scandals, with many appearing to be waiting for a lead to follow, either from the USCCB or Rome.
A few have begun to take their own steps, especially after the inability to move forward as a group in Baltimore. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore recently announced an independent reporting mechanism for accusations of sexual abuse in the archdiocese.
Other options have been discussed. It has also been proposed that the canonical role of the Promoter of Justice could be given a broader remit in diocesan child protection policy, acting as a sort of attorney general by appointment of the local bishop, but with an enhanced degree of autonomy of action.
Other suggestions that bishops could implement without having to seek higher approval have included the passage of more nuanced and detailed laws for handling escalating clerical misconduct, in the hopes of addressing problem behavior early – before an act of child abuse is committed.
Such action would also allow bishops to address the sexual abuse of victims who are not technically minors, including people in their late teenage years and seminarians. Many have noted that the current legal framework, solely reliant on an age of consent, sees a case of child sexual abuse become an instance of mere moral failure when the victim turns eighteen.
Cupich also told the world’s media that “there is a new day in terms of transparency,” and said that he hoped the upcoming summit would be remembered as a “turning point” in this regard.
It remains to be seen if this newfound commitment to transparency will extend to responding to calls for some kind of full disclosure about how Theodore McCarrick was able to rise through the episcopal ranks, despite apparent decades of complaints about his sexual abuse.
In Baltimore in November, Cupich spoke against a resolution by American bishops to encourage the Holy See to make available any documentation it could on that subject as soon as possible.
While talk at the press conference was of new days and strong messages, there is no shortage of Catholics in the United States and elsewhere already looking at this week’s meeting with a level of skepticism.
Indeed, the real challenge facing Cardinal Cupich and the other organizers may prove to be less about lowering “inflated expectations,” and more about convincing Catholics wearied by scandal that any progress made in the coming days will be meaningful.