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Shaping the Pope's sexual abuse summit

  • 18 February 2019


This week the presidents of bishops conferences and representatives of religious congregations around the world will meet in Rome. Pope Francis called them there to reflect on the sexual abuse of children and to come to one mind in recognising its importance and responding to it. The meeting has aroused much discussion, most of it sceptical, about whether it will achieve anything. To understand and evaluate the meeting, we should keep in mind its background and the different groups that have a particular interest in it.

The first and most important group comprises the people whose lives have been devastated by the crimes of sexual abuse by people who held responsible positions in the Catholic Church. They include above all the direct victims whose subsequent lives have often remained blighted, but also the relatives, friends, fellow parishioners and school mates of people who were abused and Catholics whose faith was eroded.

They will hope, many against hope, that the meeting helps make children safe in the Catholic Church, more aware of the debt it owes people who were abused, and that offenders are brought to justice. To ensure that the meeting focuses on people who have been abused, Francis asked the participants to meet with them beforehand.

The second group comprises the Catholics in such nations as the United States, Ireland and Australia where the extent of abuse has been most publicised and its effects on the Catholic life most damaging. There the crisis of sexual abuse has metastasised, beginning with a focus on the perpetrators and victims. This brought the Catholic Church into disrepute and alienated a generation of Catholics.

The crisis then moved to focus on bishops and others who covered up the crimes, allowing abusers to re-offend. As a result of this bishops lost a priori credibility among Catholics as well as others when speaking about any personal or public moral issue. That was seen in public debate about same sex marriage and in the demand for criminal cases to be brought against bishops. The focus has more recently moved to the place of the Catholic Church in society, to the supervision the state should have over its activities, and to whether its financial and other privileges should be retained.

In the United States the most recent symbol of bishops' bad behaviour and the ineptitude of the Catholic Church in dealing with it is Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Over many years he was