Catholic Leaders To Gather In Rome To Discuss Continuing Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis

Feb 19, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 5:07 pm
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Pope Francis has summoned bishops from around the world to the Vatican this week to talk about clergy sex abuse. They'll consider priests who abused children, bishops who cover up for them and how the Catholic Church should address these problems. This is the first summit of its kind. But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it may leave Catholics in the U.S. disappointed.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It was clear in the U.S. before it was in other countries that abusive priests are everywhere. And though church leaders here have been notoriously slow in responding to the crisis, at least they came up with some plan to deal with it. It wasn't very ambitious, and it would have been hard to enforce under church law. Even so, the U.S. bishops were not happy when their reforms were blocked by Pope Francis.

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DANIEL DINARDO: Proposals were not received as well by the Holy See last November, as you know, and though we're disappointed - but we continue to work, and we hope that the meeting will be of help.

GJELTEN: The president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, speaking recently at the Catholic University of America. With Pope Francis taking the reform initiative away from U.S. bishops, he's now facing the demands of abuse survivors on his own. Several of them, including Becky Ianni, showed up this month at a locked gate outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington.

BECKY IANNI: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

IANNI: We have a letter that we would like to drop off that we would like to go to Pope Francis. May we come in and deliver it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK. Do you have an appointment with us?

IANNI: No, we don't.

GJELTEN: Ianni, who was sexually violated by her family priest as a 9-year-old girl is now a leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. She says her group has moved beyond pursuing individual bad priests and are focusing on the bishops who haven't done anything about the abusers.

IANNI: Those people, to me, are the bigger criminals. They covered up the abuse, and they allowed more and more children to be put in harm's way. And that breaks my heart.

GJELTEN: Reformers have had some success. Catholic dioceses around the country, for example, have identified abusive priests by name. Victim advocates like Ianni still want more, which is why they addressed their letter personally to Pope Francis.

IANNI: Cardinals and bishops can't control each other. So if something's going to happen, it's going to have to come from Pope Francis.

GJELTEN: But it's not clear the pope will see these U.S. concerns about bishop accountability as a summit priority. Catholic leaders in some other countries don't even recognize the scope of the clergy abuse crisis yet.

Father Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and commentator for the Religion News Service, thinks the pope's main goal at this summit is simply to educate the bishops attending from these other countries.

TOM REESE: The most important purpose of this meeting is to hammer these bishops and get them to realize how important and critical an issue this is and go home to their countries and communicate that to the rest of the bishops and get their acts together and deal with this problem of abuse.

GJELTEN: A worthwhile goal, but will it satisfy?

KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS: That offers little solace to American Catholics who feel their own church is in need of reform.

GJELTEN: Kathleen Sprows Cummings directs the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame. She notes that U.S. Catholics have become so angered over their church's failure to get to the bottom of the clergy abuse crisis that they're turning to civil law enforcement authorities to do the investigative work. In several states, attorneys general are demanding that church officials turn over any information they may have on misconduct by priests or bishops. Cummings says this is where the action is now.

CUMMINGS: I would love for the church to commit to saying, we're going to find out what happened and come to a reckoning of this. I don't see that happening. And at this point, I think we have to look to the civil authorities to do that.

GJELTEN: What this could mean is that whatever the pope achieves at this week's summit, it may have little effect on what's happening with the abuse crisis here in the U.S. At this month's Catholic University preview of the Rome meeting, it fell to a Catholic layman, John Garvey, the university president, to lay out what's at stake.

JOHN GARVEY: We need to understand that people's love for the church is greatly affected. And we better fix it, or we're going to lose the next generation of Catholics.

GJELTEN: That's the cloud hanging over this week's summit - the prospect that if it fails to produce results, more Catholics may leave the church altogether. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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