A Vatican meeting programmed for failure

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 20, 2019

Brace yourself. Tomorrow the Vatican begins a public-relations offensive in response to the sex-abuse scandal. Unless I am much mistaken, unfortunately, a public-relations effort is all that we can expect.

If the long-awaited meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church adheres to the agenda set by the Vatican organizing committee, the event will not restore public confidence in the Catholic hierarchy. On the contrary it is very likely to do further damage to the bishops’ credibility.

The meeting, which draws together the leaders of all the world’s national bishops’ conferences, will last three days. Beyond that, not much can be predicted with any degree of certainty. Some ranking Church officials (including Pope Francis) have cautioned that we cannot expect too much from this meeting; others (including Cardinal Blase Cupich) have predicted that it could be a watershed moment.

In all likelihood the meeting will conclude with a strong statement—one more in a long line of strong statements—that the Church will not tolerate the abuse of the innocent. But the Vatican’s preparations for the meeting, with the careful delineation of subjects that will and will not be discussed, virtually guarantee that the meeting will not address the key elements of the scandal, unless some bishops deliberately break away from the carefully orchestrated program and demand a more substantive conversation. Cardinals Burke and Brandmüller plead for that sort of bold action in their last-minute appeal to the bishops who will participate in the Vatican conference.

Particularly in the United States, where the scandals of last summer outraged loyal Catholics, the results of another failed Vatican initiative could be disastrous. Bear in mind that the American bishops were poised to take action last November, to hold themselves accountable for negligence and to investigate the sources of the scandal, until their initiatives were tabled by a directive from Rome. Yet nothing on the set agenda for this 3-day meeting addresses the initiatives that the American bishops had planned to adopt.

In fact there are clear indications that the Vatican public-relations team wants to downplay American concerns. An article on the official Vatican News site, previewing the meeting, lists the stages in the universal Church’s response to the scandal without even mentioning the American bishops’ debates in 2002 or their adoption of the Dallas Charter. If any American Catholics hope that the meeting will help Vatican officials to learn from the American experience, those hopes will be dashed by a look at the prepared agenda.

Conspicuously missing from the program is any major address by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the chairman of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. It was shocking that Cardinal O’Malley was not included in the preparatory commission for the event; it is still more astonishing that he is not listed among the featured speakers.

But there is an odd sort of consistency here. Look through the web site created for this week’s meeting , and search for any mention of the commission that Cardinal O’Malley chairs. The organizers barely acknowledge the existence of this papal commission, and make no mention of the commission’s recommendations.

During the first day of the meeting, the topics for the two major presentations by ranking prelates are “Smell of the sheep” and “Church as field hospital.” Both of those titles are phrases made popular by Pope Francis; neither is particularly related to the sex-abuse scandal. On the second day, cardinals will speak on “collegiality” and “synodality.” Again, the topics are dear to the Pope, but there is no clear connection to the sex-abuse scandal.

Far more important, however, are the topics that are not on the agenda. Barring a change in plans, there will not be any discussion of:

  • homosexual influence within the clergy;
  • why the Vatican has eased penalties on abusive priests;
  • why the Pope himself has promoted bishops accused of covering up—and in some cases actively engaging in—sexual abuse;
  • canonical structures to hold bishops accountable for negligence;
  • how Theodore McCarrick rose to ecclesiastical influence, and who protected him.

In short, if the Vatican organizers have their way, the meeting will not discuss the issues that must be resolved if the Church is finally to resolve the scandal. The Vatican speaks of transparency, but on the eve of the meeting, organizers refused to answer direct questions about the status of a Vatican official who has been credibly accused of abuse. The organizers speak of accountability, but will not agree to look into the actions of Vatican officials who covered up for McCarrick.

Understand this: The purpose of the meeting that opens at the Vatican tomorrow is not to begin a serious inquiry into the causes of the sex-abuse scandal. It is to prevent a serious inquiry into the causes of the scandal. Now the question is: Will it succeed?


[For a fuller analysis of the scandal, and an outline of the appropriate response, please see my book Smoke of Satan.]

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 24, 2019 10:40 PM ET USA

    What does it matter if the "sheep" can smell the difference between a shepherd and a wolf? We remain sheep, or in the eyes of the prelates, lambs. The only power we have is to suffer and to protect each other from the wolves. Field hospital again? I prefer to think of the Church as the last refuge before the jailer. "If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath any thing against thee; Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go..." Mt 5:23ff

  • Posted by: Tamsin - Feb. 22, 2019 11:51 PM ET USA

    McCarrickalism.

  • Posted by: Monserrat - Feb. 21, 2019 1:44 PM ET USA

    Yes, the Vatican's Ministry of Truth will be sure to make the correct pronouncements and condemnations, totally ignoring the pressing topics you identified, while advancing the cause of "his Holiness." Let us hope that the smelly sheep faithful make a real stink in response.

  • Posted by: feedback - Feb. 21, 2019 8:54 AM ET USA

    Why would someone decide that gathering Archbishops from around the world to talk about the "Smell of the sheep" would make a good impression on the scandalized Catholic faithful and to address our expectations from this "summit"? And hopefully the talk about "collegiality" and "synodality" does not become clericalistic imposition on the bishops of a groupthink to avoid finding real resolution to the homosexual networks of corruption. Otherwise this will be McCarrick v.2.0.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 20, 2019 6:10 PM ET USA

    Amen. This will be a step back. Properly interpreted, it will mean that McCarrick would still be a Cardinal if he hadn't got caught with very young boys.