A verdict in his trial will likely satisfy many Catholics that justice has been done. But if answers are not forthcoming about the broader McCarrick investigation, and if McCarrick's successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is still leading the Archdiocese of Washington when the summit begins, at least some Catholics will have a difficult time trusting in the pope's commitment to sincere renewal.
The second obstacle the pope will face is the investigation into Argentine Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, who faces allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct involving seminarians. Zanchetta resigned from his leadership of the Diocese of Oran in July 2017, citing difficulty managing the assignment he took over in 2013. In December 2017 he was appointed by Francis to a newly-created leadership position in APSA, the curial department that oversees the Vatican's real estate holdings and financial assets.
Last month, the Associated Press reported that Francis had known since at least 2015 about allegations of misconduct regarding Zanchetta, and had even been sent lewd selfies of the bishop to review. Francis apparently accepted Zanchetta's excuse that his cell phone had been hacked, and dismissed the allegations as a part of a smear campaign.
In short, Francis at least seems to have allowed Zanchetta to continue as a diocesan bishop for two years after learning about serious allegations against the man, and then to have appointed him to a Vatican position once diocesan administration became untenable for him to manage.
An investigation into Zanchetta is now underway. The degree to which it might exonerate or implicate Francis is, of course, not yet known. The story has not garnered much attention in the U.S.- in part because the AP reported it just days before the nation's attention was consumed by Nathan Phillips and the social media scandal surrounding the March for Life. But more details may emerge in the next few weeks, and bishops, certainly, are watching the story closely.
If Francis is to argue convincingly that he is serious about eradicating a culture of clericalism and secrecy, the allegations connecting him and Zanchetta will likely become a major obstacle for him, especially if they remain unaddressed.
Those factors may not bode well for the immediate outcome of the Vatican summit. However, it is worth noting that behind the scenes, the leadership of the U.S. bishops' conference has been working with curial officials in Rome on reforming their reform package. They are likely to finalize some proposed measures at committee meetings in March, in order to send them to Rome for approval well in advance of any possible votes at their Baltimore meeting in June.
Whether Catholics are confident in that process, or whether their simmering frustration will be stoked into flame by unmet expectations over the Vatican meeting, remains to be seen.
In either case, the relationship between Francis and Zanchetta offers a valuable lesson for bishops, in the U.S. and elsewhere. The AP has reported that Pope Francis was the long-time confessor of Zanchetta, and that while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he treated Zanchetta as his spiritual son.
A relationship like that one, between confessor and penitent, or spiritual director and directee, can cloud judgment if the same people are also in a hierarchically-related administrative relationship. That clouding seems at times to be almost inevitable.
Lay parish employees, for example, learn quickly that, however careful they are not to mix fora, it is usually not a good idea for one's boss to be one's confessor. Seminaries and religious institutes set clear rules about keeping confidential spiritual relationships, especially those that discuss sinfulness, outside the "chain of command." Bishops are generally careful not to become the intimate spiritual confidantes of their priests and chancery employees.
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An awareness of the sinful habits of a subordinate can sometimes lead to prejudgement of the person or distrust. But just as often, it can lead to a kind of disordered empathy for a subordinate whom one knows is struggling. That empathy, if unchecked, can lead to poor administrative decisions. That fact might explain the reason why bishops have mishandled allegations made against their priests, at least in some cases. And, though neither Francis nor Zanchetta has suggested as much, it could explain why Francis seems to have mishandled the situation of Zanchetta- if he had a paternal relationship to the man, and an awareness of his apparent struggles, he might have made errors in administrative judgment- like allowing the bishop to remain in diocesan ministry, or finding a place for him at Vatican.
Those are questions Francis could face during the investigation of Zanchetta, and they could provide the pope insight into the need for more exacting demarcations drawn between bishops' spiritual roles as pastors and their administrative responsibilities as diocesan leaders.
There are, of course, other storylines to follow as the Vatican summit approaches. Questions swirl around the way in which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, has handled some allegations in his Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. New reports have demonstrated the scope of a global problem concerning sexual coercion and abuse toward religious sisters. U.S. bishops continue to face state and federal investigations, and some bishops who have been accused of misconduct remain in office without apparent investigations.
The pope has said that he is working to prepare for the meeting, and asked for prayers. While the summit may achieve a great deal of good on the global scale, if it is also to restore U.S. confidence in Church leadership, those prayers will certainly be needed.
J.D.Flynn served as Catholic News Agency's editor-in-chief from August 2017 to December 2020.