Analysis: Abuse summit ends with more questions than answers

20190218 Press Conference for the presentation of the meeting on  The protection of minors in the Church  21 24 February 2019 Daniel Ibanez 3 Vatican press conference led by interim press director Alessandro Gisotti, 18 Feb. 2019. | CNA

There was a moment during the final press conference of this month's Vatican abuse summit that, for many observers, symbolizes a theme that ran throughout the meeting.

Asked by a journalist about the case of Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said he would to decline to comment, as he had done when asked earlier in the week about other abuse cases.


"About the case, I'm not, I'm not, you know, authorized-- I mean, yeah," the Maltese archbishop said.


He was interrupted quickly by the Holy See's interim press office director, Alessandro Gisotti, who insisted, not for the first time, that media ask questions only about general principles, not specific cases.


Zanchetta, 54, was reported to the Vatican in 2015 and 2017 for having sexually explicit images on his cellphone, and for sexual abuse of seminarians. Pope Francis appointed the bishop to a Vatican position in late 2017, after Zanchetta resigned from his diocese.


The Vatican has twice insisted it knew nothing about abuse reports against Zanchetta until the fall of 2018, though media investigations suggest that Pope Francis knew about the allegations in 2015 and gave Zanchetta a Vatican job anyway.


The Vatican said in January it is investigating Zanchetta, which Gisotti repeated Feb. 24.


Scicluna concluded the discussion that day by saying: "My take would be, because I'm not, I don't have information about the case you mentioned, but if it's investigating, somebody's investigating a case, they're not covering it up."


It was, for many journalists, a dissatisfying answer. In sum, it seemed that in the summit organizers' final face-to-face with reporters, the response to the only direct accusation that Francis covered up abuse was also the most clumsy and ill-prepared of the week.


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But confusion about what was being discussed, and what could be asked, was a feature for most of the Vatican summit.


Forum for accountability


In October 2018, just days into the nearly month-long synod on young people, Archbishop Charles Scicluna told Catholics not to expect the synod to provide answers on the abuse crisis, but to wait for the global summit of bishops in February.


He also said that the synod fathers were not just listening to young people inside the synod hall, but to those outside of it, and acknowledged that "there is a greater expectation for more accountability" on the topic of sexual abuse.

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Scicluna suggested the expectation of accountability would be met in February, during the special summit on the sexual abuse crisis convened by Pope Francis.


That summit "is going to be the best forum for this question [of accountability]," he said.


That summit took place last week.


Journalists hoped to get answers during the summit, to their own questions and to those asked by victims and others. But, during their regular press conferences, the summit's organizers seemed to tell journalists often that they were not asking the right questions.


Questions about the role homosexuality plays in abuse, for example, were shot down quickly by Scicluna as an unhelpful and irrelevant categorization, when, he said, focus should instead be on "single cases."


But Gisotti told media in the run-up to the summit that bishops would not be fielding any questions about individual priests' and bishops' cases during the four-day conference.


Journalists were left wondering which was true.


Much of the talk, ultimately, focused on general principles of child protection and the abuse of minors, not on bishops' accountability -- with final suggestions ranging from handbooks and new guidelines to amending the use of the pontifical secret and creating a new department in the Roman Curia.


Questions from victims


Meanwhile, outside of the synod hall, dozens of victims, many of whom had travelled from outside Italy to be there, were insistent that they wanted to see the Vatican take an immediate zero-tolerance approach to abusive clergy and bishops who have covered up, and to release information on abuse cases processed by the CDF.


Though they began the week with the cautious hope of answers, victims' groups left Rome with more demands than they started with.


When bishops' accountability did feature in discussion, it came wrapped in the language of "synodality" and "collegiality," while observers complained that those terms were nebulous, and their intended meaning hard to understand.


What few discernable policy proposals there were seemed, to many, little more than articulations of the principle that bishops should be responsible for holding each other accountable -- something widely noted to have been lacking in the case of the former cardinal and archbishop Theodore McCarrick.


Cardinal Blase Cupich, for example, re-debuted his so-called "metropolitan model" for bishop accountability, which he first proposed to US bishops in November. Cupich offered the proposal as a way of providing mutual accountability among bishops and advancing the cause of "synodality."


Yet, he found himself facing immediate -- and clearly unwelcome -- questions about how his approach would have worked in the case of Theodore McCarrick, who was himself the metropolitan bishop for much of his ministry and supported by suffragan bishops who were at times themselves not above suspicion.


When pressed for details on how cases involving negligent bishops would be handled, Cardinals Sean O'Malley and Cupich pointed to Come una madre amorevole -- Pope Francis' 2016 motu proprio setting out legal mechanisms for reporting and handling complaints against bishops -- as existing policy for bishops' accountability that is only lacking application.


This, despite the pope himself walking back the proposal in August when he said the "so-called tribunal of inquiry on bishops" outlined in Come una madre amorevole had been abandoned because it "wasn't practical and it also wasn't convenient for the different cultures of the bishops that had to be judged."


The results


The Vatican sex abuse summit promised to give victims, Catholics, and journalists answers to their questions about the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up in the Church.


Instead, during the summit, organizers told them they could not even ask their questions.


Back in October, Scicluna told those losing trust in the Church's handling of abuse cases to be patient. At the end of the abuse summit, with more questions emerging than answers supplied, at least some journalists, victims, and Catholic are asking: "why is this all taking so long?"

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