Many are now realizing that the problems facing the Church have never been the result of a lack of procedures. Instead, attention is shifting to the enduring lack of will in the Church to employ its policies consistently and with rigor.
Absent a moral commitment to see them applied unsparingly, no reform measures – however systematic – can prevent the worst from happening.
As a case in point: last month it emerged that the Archdiocese of New York, which has some of the clearest, best-established abuse policies of any U.S. diocese, left a priest in ministry even after its own independent commission offered compensation to several of his alleged victims.
As recently as last month, the office of clergy personnel issued a letter of good standing stating "without qualification" that no accusation had ever been made against him; this despite an ongoing investigation by the archdiocese's own review board.
The failures in New York were not caused by a lack of policies and procedures. Instead, they appear to have been truly human failures.
This may be the reason the pope appears skeptical that another policy or structure could yield different results, at any level of the Church, without personal conversion by the people charged with implementing them.
In August of last year, at the height of the Church's summer of scandal, the USCCB's own lay-led National Review Board agreed, issuing a statement that ruled out further structural reforms as a solution.
"The evil of the crimes that have been perpetrated reaching into the highest levels of the hierarchy will not be stemmed simply by the creation of new committees, policies, or procedures," the review board wrote.
"What needs to happen is a genuine change in the Church's culture, specifically among the bishops themselves. This evil has resulted from a loss of moral leadership and an abuse of power that led to a culture of silence that enabled these incidents to occur."
Moral leadership, as the pope has told the U.S. bishops in no uncertain terms, cannot be effected by a vote. It requires a personal conversion in the face of failure and sin. Real change will require a totally new mindset among bishops, and the Curia.
The 19th century British Prime Minister George Canning ridiculed what he called "the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the carriage."
"Men are everything," Canning said, "measures comparatively nothing."
Pope Francis echoed this sentiment in his letter to the bishops, warning them that the Church's lost credibility "cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts."
Instead, the pope wrote, the Church will only regain her credibility by "acknowledging its sinfulness and limitation" while at the same time "preaching the need for conversion."
After the scandals of 2002, many bishops and officials treated the new measures and standards as a hardship to be endured, rather than a new reality of ecclesiastical life to be internalized. The "cultural change" called for by the national review board and the pope may prove to be the only means of breaking what has begun to resemble a cycle of scandal.
By warning the American bishops against measures aimed at recovering their reputations rather than amending their ways, the pope may have set the bar by which his own February summit will be measured. In his letter, Francis has called for a "shared project that is at once broad, unassuming, sober, and transparent." Such a project, it seems, would bear little resemblance to past attempts to respond to the sexual abuse crisis.
As the bishops pray in Mundelein and the pope's advisers prepare for February's meeting in Rome, many Catholics begin 2019 wondering if a hierarchy beset by scandal can truly convert, or merely reform – again.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and worked as Catholic News Agency's Washington DC editor until December 2020.