Pope Francis wants “concrete” change over the Church’s child sexual-abuse scandal. It won’t be easy, though.
But how to be concrete? In this seemingly never-ending tragic story of minors sexually abused by prelates and a pervasive culture of cover-up, even today the gap between words and actions remains complicated. The Church has historically seen this as an issue of sin and forgiveness, not crime and punishment. And whereas canon law, which is designed to adjudicate prelates, not to protect children, leaves tremendous room for ambiguity, civil law is generally far more clear on how to prosecute abusers—and includes the crucial concept of consent.
So it was striking on Thursday to hear two of the conference’s opening speakers use the term crimes in no uncertain terms—a marked change from Vatican rhetoric of the past. “An essential aspect of the exercise of stewardship in these cases is the proper interface with civil jurisdiction. We are talking about misconduct that is also a crime in all civil jurisdictions,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who spent a decade as the Vatican’s top investigator on abuse cases. He later said it was important for the Church to move “from a culture of silence” to “a culture of disclosure.”
This week, Monsignor Scicluna said he was pleased that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body that defends Catholic doctrine, increased the number of canon lawyers from 10 to 17. In the past, Francis has said that the CDF handles about 2,000 cases at a time. The backlog is enormous. The numbers are chilling. The Holy See has said that in the past decade, 3,420 credible cases of abuse worldwide were reported to the CDF, while in the United States, the Catholic Church has said that 6,900 priests have been credibly accused since 1950, according to BishopAccountability.org, an advocacy organization.
If any prelates from around the world—and inside the Vatican—had not yet opened their eyes to the extent of the crisis, it would be hard to remain ignorant after this meeting. Making these victims heard inside the Vatican, and holding the meeting itself, is a political act on the part of Francis. In his opening remarks he called the meeting an opportunity “to discuss together, in a synodal, frank, and in-depth manner, how to confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity.” Prelates are encouraged to air their views and concerns. Ideological differences will emerge. As such, this conference anticipates any future conclave. Francis inherited this crisis, and his successor will too.