Robert Royal Thursday, February 21, 2019
Many people – even many Catholics – who only follow Church matters vaguely, have been puzzled by the Vatican’s conspicuous lack of a sense of urgency about the sexual abuse crisis. Yes, there’s a “summit” on abuse that starts today, but only after months and with a program that looks very carefully stage-managed to keep the most troubling questions at a distance from the Vatican itself.
And it is strange, given that – as many in Rome are certainly aware –
instantaneous communications in our digital world make the slow
response look less like the Vatican’s usual leisurely procedures and
much more like a desire not to know too much – or how high the problem
But it’s rapidly becoming impossible to keep the lid on. Just two days ago, for example, The Washington Post carried a story about a case in Argentina (available here)
involving the abuse of minors at an institute for deaf children. An
Italian priest, Nicola Corradi, was spiritual director there and later
at a similar school in Italy, and along with others abused dozens of
underage children for decades.
This story is not entirely new – there had been reports about abuse
at the Argentinean school for several months. In many ways, it seemed to
be just one more case of sexual exploitation of the vulnerable and a
lack of Church oversight.
What is new, however, is quite shocking: “The Italian victims’
efforts to sound the alarm to church authorities began in 2008 and
included mailing a list of accused priests to Francis in 2014 and
physically handing him the list in 2015.” If the accusations are to be
believed – and they seem quite credible on the basis of the Post’s investigative
reporting – this means that the pope knew of the abuse of minors, at an
Italian school under the supervision of the Vatican. And either he or
those who, under his direction, should have acted, did essentially
That story has been widely circulated in America and victims in
Argentina and Italy are now demanding justice – one has even begun a
hunger strike. But if you think that it has caused much of a reaction in
Italy or in Rome, you would be wrong. And that may be one reason why
officials in the Vatican seem to continue to believe that they can
manage the revelations that have come out and, no doubt, the others that
we will see in the next few days. But they can’t.
It may be difficult for most American Catholics to believe, but
there’s little interest about the abuse summit in Italy, or most of
Europe, at the moment. The New York Times, in its bigoted
anti-Catholicism, may run “news” stories intended to discredit the
Church almost every day. But in a way, that’s a backhanded tribute to
the fact that even the Times believes that the Church means something and is worth the trouble of attacking.
By contrast, you’d have to work hard to find news about the summit or
the abuse crisis in Europe’s mainstream media. There’s been a little
interest in a related story that just appeared about the Vatican’s rules
about how to handle the children of wayward priests – 50,000 of them
according to the Vatican itself. But about the global abuse crisis and
the lack of response by figures from the pope on down, all but nothing.
[Late addition: Owing to time changes, this couldn’t be included
in the original article, but the BBC, which takes an interest in
Britain’s former colonies, is reporting that Mumbai’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias
also failed to act on allegations about abuse that were brought to him.
Furthermore, Gracias is one of the four main organizers of the summit.
And as is the case with Pope Francis, this did not happen in some
distant past when policies were different but as recently as 2015.]
An Italian journalist who, though a serious Catholic, has worked at
the very highest levels of the secular media here, told me the other day
that most Italians are virtual “nihilists” (his term) when it comes to
corruption in the Church. They believe that it’s always been that way
and always will be. They don’t show anything like the anger and outrage –
or simple surprise – that is common in places like America and,
increasingly, Latin America.
Italian friends who know the Roman landscape well say that the gay
lobby in the Vatican – and the Vatican more generally – continue to
exercise a very effective, old-school-style control over Church-related
news. And not only locally, but in some of the most prestigious news
outlets in Italy.
Vatican officials have for some time made it clear that they believe
that, by contrast, the American bishops mishandled the abuse crisis and
let things get out of hand in the American press. They even
occasionally give the impression that they – and perhaps the pope –
think the American bishops are their enemies.
Neither charge is true. In fact, it would be truer to say that the
bishops in America have a better – not perfect, but better – grip on the
priestly abuse problem now than do bishops in any other country.
(Holding bishops accountable, of course, is still unfinished business –
and Rome hasn’t much helped with that.)
Their conflicts, such as they are, with Pope Francis mostly stem from
the fact that – given constant media exposure, criminal investigations
by civil authorities, and demands of justice for victims – they can’t
count on media to ignore problems or a largely cynical laity to just go
along, as in Europe. They need to act – and be seen to act.
And it’s not only in America that a storm is brewing. Abuse survivors
from several continents met yesterday with the organizers of the summit
– though not with the pope, a sore point among them. It’s hard to say
whether their collective efforts will bring enough pressure to bear on
the Vatican that it will break through the logjam. On the whole, you’d
have to say: it appears not. But the victims are playing a prominent
role now and are not going away.
To really address the problem would mean some painful moments of
truth, such as we have experienced in the United States. Corruption this
serious would, of course, require that some heads roll (not only
McCarrick’s), in the Vatican and elsewhere, and that there be public
acts of repentance. But the very general and broad program the
organizers have published seems designed to make sure no one in the
Vatican will need to lose much sleep.
I’ve been expecting for the last several weeks that there’s going to
be some surprise announcement near the end of the summit, some striking
move that will dominate news coverage creating the impression that some
radical breakthrough has been achieved.
I don’t know exactly what that would be or whether it would be some
real step forward or mere window dressing. But just as “synodality”
materialized out of nowhere at the end of Synod on Youth, there is
probably some plan in place to do something newsworthy to make it appear
that the Vatican has turned a corner in dealing with abuse.
It’s had to believe that that will be really so or that it will
convince the victims who have now assumed a public role in holding
Church officials accountable at the very highest levels. But keep an eye
on those victims. They will provide us with the best insights into
what, if anything, has changed.