Vatican City, Feb 14, 2019 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- As Pope Francis prepares for his long-awaited Vatican summit on sexual abuse, Catholic commentators and U.S. bishops are waiting to see what it can accomplish. But just as eagerly, they are waiting to see what will become of “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.
The two events have become, by dint of timing, linked in a way that many in Rome would rather have avoided.
To many, McCarrick’s case is an obstacle to be cleared ahead of a successful summit. But it seems increasingly likely that a verdict on McCarrick will serve only to highlight the issues that won’t be addressed at next week’s summit.
While the pope has discussed “deflating expectations,” and said that next week’s meeting will focus on calling for sexual abuse policies concerning minors in the parts of the world that do not yet have them, some bishops have told CNA they fear that the Rome meeting will focus less on presenting solutions and more on defining the problem – or even defining parts of the problem away.
Rome has laid out a tentative itinerary involving listening sessions with abuse victims and has made it clear the pope wants attendees to understand the grave reality of sexual abuse, and to engage in discussions on the principles of accountability, rather than to expect a coherent response to emerge.
Indeed, for many observers, expectations have been tempered, and the stage does not seem set for a meaningful outcome that addresses the problems faced in recent months in the U.S., in Chile, and in Argentina- problems related to episcopal accountability and sexual coercion.
Leading reform advocates like Marie Collins, an abuse survivor and former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, have been outspoken and consistent about what they think would constitute real results, including serious mechanisms for holding bishops accountable for negligence, and a redefinition of the category of “vulnerable adult” in canon law. Neither of these appears to be on the docket for next week.
Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston, head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has himself called for a broadening of the term “vulnerable adult” in law, citing the need to protect those who have suffered from sexualized abuse of authority, like seminarians.
Although he is widely recognized the Church’s most visible and credible advocate for abuse reforms, O’Malley was left off of the organizing committee for next week’s meeting. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that the definition “vulnerable adults” will even feature in the conversation in Rome.
Several members of the planning committee for the summit, including Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, and Cardinal Blase Cupich, have indicated that the meeting will treat the abuse of minors only, leaving abusive behavior with adults off the table.
To some observers, this deliberate narrowing of the agenda overshadows the applicability of the summit to the situation of the Church in the U.S., and in countries that have already developed comprehensive policies related to safeguarding minors.
While there is certainly great need to convey the seriousness of the abuse crisis to bishops from other parts of the world, it is questionable how well that can be achieved by a few days’ discussion in Rome.
Meanwhile, in places like the U.S., there is an urgent need to address problems beyond the creation of basic reporting structures.
U.S. bishops are standing by the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter, but looking for a way to address a new set of problems involving bishops’ accountability and the abuse of adults. After being told in Baltimore to wait for Rome to take the lead, some now wonder why their concerns seem not to have made it to the agenda.
Indeed, at the same time that Rome has been eager to downplay expectations around the abuse summit, curial officials (though not, it must be said, in the CDF) have been talking up a McCarrick conviction and laicization.
It is no secret that, whatever else they may disagree on, bishops in the United States and Rome are unified in understanding McCarrick’s departure as a necessary turning-of-the-page on the scandals of last year and a clearing of the deck before next week’s summit.
But, despite feverish speculation about the timing of an announcement, no decision has yet been published. Moreover, there is no clear indication that any guilty verdict would explicitly include reference to the accusations that McCarrick preyed upon seminarians.
Those victims, to say nothing of seminarians and the faithful across the United States, are waiting anxiously for some sign that their suffering, too, has been addressed. Yet the indications coming out of Rome appear, at best, not to have heard their concerns.
There is no disagreement, anywhere, that a priest (or any adult) who sexually abuses a child has committed one of the worst crimes imaginable. In the context of the U.S. Church, there is no shortage of consensus about how seriously such cases should be dealt with. Where consensus breaks down is at the other end of the age spectrum during adolescence.
Figures from both the United States and other countries indicate that the vast majority of clerical sexual abuse cases concern homosexual relations with teenagers.
While McCarrick faces multiple charges of sexually abusing minors as well as adults, the first accusation made public by the Archdiocese of New York underscores the problematic line between sexual abuse of a minor and an illicit encounter with an adult.
The accusation announced by New York in June concerned a former altar server who alleged he had been abused by McCarrick when he was 17 in the early 1970s.
While this announcement had the effect of prompting additional accusations against the then-cardinal, it was quietly noted by astute canon lawyers that, under the operative canon law of the time, the alleged victim was not – strictly speaking – a minor.
In civil and canon law, the necessity of an age of consent creates a kind of moral-legal disconnect. A relationship between a man and a boy a day before his eighteenth birthday is a grave crime; twenty-four hours later it becomes categorized in law only as a regrettable moral lapse – even if the victim was a seminarian coerced by his bishop.
It would be a bitter irony for many of McCarrick’s alleged victims if the implicit lesson of his conviction – reinforced by the limited agenda for next week’s summit – was that only abuse of legally defined minors merits the Church’s discipline.
While the potential for grave harm and injustice has become abundantly clear in recent months, engaging with the messy facts of cases at the upper end of the age spectrum is something for which Rome seems to have little interest or appetite.
Until that changes, it seems clear that, whenever an announcement is made about whatever fate awaits McCarrick, the former cardinal’s shadow will still fall over next week’s summit, and much of what follows for some time yet.
As many watch and wait for a McCarrick verdict, Rome instead announced that his most successful protégé, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, had been named cardinal camerlengo, regent of the Vatican during any future papal interregnum.
Farrell was for years one of McCarrick’s closest advisors in Washington, serving as his vicar general and even sharing an apartment with him.
For his part, the new camerlengo insisted last summer that he never had any reason to suspect the apparently well-known rumors concerning his mentor.
What Farrell suspected or didn’t in Washington to one side, promoting McCarrick’s most famous collaborator, at this of all times, suggests to many that Rome may be as oblivious to the signal it sends as Farrell himself claims to have been about McCarrick.
The announcement is even more baffling for Catholics in Washington, who are still waiting for an eventual successor to both McCarrick and Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
Sources in both Washington and Rome have told CNA that a final list of candidates for the capital see has been on the pope’s desk at least since his return from the United Arab Emirates. The same sources have said that any announcement will be delayed until after McCarrick’s fate is decided, allowing the new archbishop to mark a new chapter in Washington, rather than begin under his shadow.