The Vatican Just Pulled Off Another Massive Dodge on Sexual Abuse

Sound familiar? This time, lawsuits and investigations are swirling.
November 14, 2018, 11:02pm
Pope Francis
Photo by Tiziana FABI/AFP/Getty Images

It's been almost four months since Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and a longtime adviser to Pope Francis, resigned from the College of Cardinals over sexual abuse allegations, the first time someone of his stature had ever done so. It's been three months since a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report concluding that, in only parts of the state, more than 300 predatory priests had preyed on 1,000-plus children, and six dioceses had helped cover it all up. Soon after, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Nebraska, Illinois, and New Mexico announced they'd be looking into the travesty at the state level. It's been three months or so since the latter two states—New York and New Jersey—opened up abuse hotlines, and phones "started ringing off the hook." It's been less than a month since the the Vatican hosted a synod meant to energize young people in the faith, and tried to address how to get more youth to join as the scandal continued to grow and countries all over the planet demanded a response. And it's been a few weeks since the former assistant of a Buffalo bishop accused him of doing nothing to protect the children in his diocese.

The pope, however, doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to deal with any of this. It's akin to what's been happening in corporate America, as institutions slowly and often inadequately deal with the sexual abuse allegations against the most powerful men in their hierarchies. Except when it comes to addressing systemic sexual abuse of children in the Church he leads, Francis is leaning on a tactic—punting—that the Vatican perfected over decades.

This time, it isn't going over very well.


On Monday, the Holy See asked hundreds of American bishops attending the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore not to vote on any measures concerning the Church's sex abuse crisis. Which had been their original plan: On Wednesday, following extensive discussions, they were supposed to settle on a code of conduct outlining how bishops ought to respond to allegations of sexual abuse in their dioceses—long-overdue guidelines specifically for these sorts of Church higher-ups. (In the early 2000s, bishops met in Dallas to form similar policies for subordinate priests, but never themselves.) The gathering in Baltimore was also set to decide on a separate commission, composed of lay people, that would look into bishops' own behavior, if necessary.

They did none of these things—and even reportedly voted down a resolution to "encourage" the Holy See to make public any documents concerning McCarrick.

The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Dinardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, expressed disappointment when revealing the call from on-high that they abstain from doing anything. Instead, the Vatican ask was that they hold off until Church leaders from America and around the world meet in February—at a summit Francis called for in September. According to an unnamed source in the New York Times, "a person close to the pope, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said he believed that the delay was not intended to prevent action on sexual abuse," and that the pope was stopping their efforts simply because he wanted "a coordinated global response."


“We are not ourselves happy about this,” DiNardo said during a press conference on Monday. “We are working very well to move to action, and we’ll do it. We just have a bump in the road.”

But just how poorly paved is this street?

"The explanation that the Vatican hopes for a global unified response a little later seems right to me, but I do worry a global response will be weaker," said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University. "However, 'stronger' and 'weaker' are relative here to the three decades of underwhelming response both by the US bishops and the Vatican. Words, papers, and conferences have not reformed the institution yet. Survivors and all Roman Catholics have reason not to trust the bishops’ moves, even before the Vatican put them on pause."

In other words: People are newly weary, but they've been seeing a version of this charade for a long time. Take this young century alone: It wasn't enough in 2002, when the Boston Globe's Spotlight team showed that the predominantly Catholic city's children had been preyed on for decades and that officials had systematically tried to hide the egregious sins of its clergy. It wasn't enough in 2012, when it was revealed that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York had essentially paid off men to leave the priesthood when he was the archbishop of Milwaukee. It wasn't enough a year later, when Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, the Vatican’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was accused of routinely paying young boys for sex, and the Vatican, instead of informing the country's authorities, recalled him back to safety behind its walls, where he had diplomatic immunity from secular persecution. (He was eventually criminally charged by the Holy See but died before his trial.)


Still, many inside and outside the Church were shocked by this latest stall on the pope's part. On top of Dinardo only tepidly succumbing to the pope's demands, Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-director of, summed it up when she told the Times: "This is a disaster." Talking to the Washington Post, the new bishop of Jefferson City, Missouri, Shawn McKnight, stated, “I’m beginning to wonder if we need to look at a resolution where we refuse to participate in any kind of cover-up from those above us.” Writing for the Catholic news outlet Crux, John L. Allen Jr. argued the pope's insistence on postponing raised the stakes: "For the Vatican to ask the bishops’ conference of the fourth-largest Catholic country in the world, and one deeply scarred by the crisis at the moment, to wait three months before taking meaningful action suggests the February meeting better deliver something dramatic, or, at least in this country, there will be blood in the water."

Everyone, obviously, is watching. A group of sex abuse survivors just filed a lawsuit against the Conference of Bishops, demanding the release of files that could potentially show some American clerics were aware of cover-ups. Generally speaking, Francis's last-minute audible also stunned people because he has, at least on the surface, been a more democratic and less dictatorial pope than those of the past. (His "progressiveness," some have argued, could be leading to an inevitable schism in the Church.)


"Given his tendency to convene synods, it has seemed to many that this pope was working to decentralize Church authority and give the other bishops more power over their local diocese," said Kathleen Grimes, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, emphasizing that how much power the pope and bishops have, respectively, has been an ongoing question within the Church. "This move seems particularly confusing because it seems to contradict the collegial spirit of Francis's papacy."

Currently, Francis is acting like any old stereotypical boss, calling for meetings—like the youth synod in October, and the coming congregation of bishops in February—that so far have produced no tangible results and might even seem like a waste of time.

“We are not branch managers of the Vatican,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois. “Our people are crying out for some action.”

It's as if Francis is bumbling around his divine office and wondering why everyone is being so critical of him. He appears to be under some kind of assumption that these conversations themselves are evidence of improvement—and, if he's not integral to them, they're not worth having. But up until this point, they haven't been all that useful, other than summarizing potential steps forward. (He could have probably just sent an email.) Also: Women still don't have any input on the final documents created after these synods, either, which are held once every few years.


Even if one holds the viewpoint that this is indeed Francis's attempt to show the universality of the Church, and confront the issue head-on as a single unified faith, the optics clearly aren't great. And transparency has been a huge lapse for Francis, who, when asked by reporters whether or not he knew about Theodore McCarrick's history of allegedly sexually abusing seminarians and priests, for example, avoided answering the question.

“I hope this doesn’t look like a dodge,” Bishop Christopher J. Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, said in an interview with the Times about the non-vote. Unfortunately, it does.

"This decision seems to be playing poorly," Grimes told me. "It seems to be validating and maybe even inflaming fears that the Church is incapable or unwilling of getting its own clerical house in order. In the minds of many liberal Catholics, this decision confirms suspicions that the Church's hierarchical structure has been a major obstacle to reform. For many conservatives—those who have tended to doubt or call into question Francis's fidelity to Church tradition—this apparent misstep makes it easier for them to blame the sex abuse crisis on Francis rather than on his predecessors or on the Church itself."

The Post reports, too, that "Church-watchers said some in Rome don’t want the US Church to appear to be ahead of other parts of the world." That point, in particular, reads moot, as the level of frustration at the Vatican's repeated lapses in managing the controversy very noticeably reached new heights this summer—and wasn't limited to the United States. Other countries seemed just as "ahead," or more so, in fact.

Last May, in Chile, every single bishop in the nation simultaneously resigned when it became clear to the public that there was a "culture of abuse" there. (Many considered the mass resignation to be an unprecedented move in the history of the Church, an acknowledgment, in the very least, these holy men were willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.) Then, later in the summer, after the pontiff wrapped up his weekend trip to Ireland in August, the Irish Times commissioned a poll in which "55 percent of [Irish] respondents said Pope Francis had not gone far enough" in addressing the country's long-standing sex abuse tragedy.

The Church, obviously, isn't immune to evolution. It's survived for 2,000 years by (conservatively) doing just that. The Second Vatican Council, most notably, changed certain staunch practices after World War II. (As in: Mass didn't only have to be recited in Latin.) But the public, especially in the United States, and especially in the context of MeToo era, is skeptical of what happens—or doesn't—behind closed doors.

It's hard to know exactly what we're all waiting for.

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