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Zero-tolerance, frank talk on sexuality and power is needed at Vatican abuse summit

Despicable abuses of sex and power by clergy surface widely at this time. To address this scourge, Pope Francis has ordered more than 100 of the world’s bishops to come to the Vatican for a summit on sexual abuse from 21-24 February 2019. For Anthony Egan SJ, a priest and moral theologian, bishops will need to commit themselves to a policy of  “zero-tolerance” and “to re-examine sexuality, gender and power” within the Church, if they are to retain any credibility.

On 13 February 2019, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith upheld its 11 January finding that retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was guilty of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians and confirmed that the cardinal be dismissed from the priesthood.

McCarrick was notified on 15 February that his appeal against the judgment has failed. Moreover, Pope Francis has indicated that the Congregation’s decision is, in terms of Church law, res iudicata — final and admitting no further recourse to law.

The judgment is important. It points to the fact that high office in the Church is no longer protection from prosecution for abuse.

This is particularly significant in McCarrick’s case since rumours of his behaviour, specifically with seminarians, had been doing the rounds for decades. Despite this he rose rapidly into the ranks of the hierarchy, possibly because his views on the Church seemed to coincide with that of the then pope, John Paul II. He is the highest-ranking priest in modern times — and the first cardinal ever ­— to be dismissed for sexual misconduct.   

The judgment also comes within days of the Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse to take place from 21 to 24 February.

Many observers are hoping that two words will dominate at this meeting: zero tolerance. In short, that any priest or religious who abuses so much as one minor or vulnerable adult will get the same treatment as McCarrick.

In the light of this verdict, and the shockwave it will no doubt send through the bishops, it is hoped that those who are genuinely committed to the protection of minors and vulnerable adults will win the day.

Others are less hopeful, concerned that sections of the world’s episcopacy represented at the meeting will equivocate, or even deny that such things happen in their corner of the universal Church.   

Unfortunately, if this happens it will simply prolong the crisis, giving the impression that Catholicism is trapped in a cycle. A cycle of an eternal recurrence — to perhaps misuse Nietzsche’s term — of abuse, cover-up and court cases which despite new, improved protocols and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults may have little lasting effect.

There is also the very real danger that the summit, influenced by the McCarrick case and the imminent publication of journalist Frédéric Martel’s new book, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, will fail to address the deeper symptoms of the crisis.

While one hopes that past failures to protect the vulnerable will be addressed adequately — summed up in the words ‘zero tolerance’ — it would be mistaken to reduce the causes of abuse to simplistic categories like ‘homosexuality’.

This will be a great temptation, given both McCarrick’s actions and Martel’s book which claims an extensive and hidden homosexual subculture in the Vatican.

On the latter, Martel notes that this was often combined by the persons concerned with public homophobia and insistence on ‘orthodox’ Catholic understandings on sexuality (the ‘hypocrisy’ in his book’s title).

Past utterances by senior clergy on abuse have often focused on homosexual clergy, arguing that keeping gay men out of the priesthood is a ‘solution’ to the crisis. It isn’t, for a number of reasons.

First, it confuses homosexuality with paedophilia; the latter encompasses gay and straight people, women as well as men. Second, it contradicts (or at very least glosses over) the facts: clergy abuse victims in the church have been both male and female. Third, the crime is opportunistic: abusers pick on victims who are primarily accessible to them, over whom they can hold power.

Turning on homosexuals in the Church is a distraction from the real issues we must face if we are to deal with the current crisis. The first of these is sexuality and gender; the second is power.

We need to have a comprehensive and frank examination of the Church’s understanding of sexuality and gender.

Our understanding of human sexuality is deficient, based on inaccurate and outdated categories and ideas that neither help us to deal with the abuse crisis nor reflect the lived realities of the people we serve. Just as in other areas like science, economics and politics we base our teaching and practice on the best available knowledge in these areas, we need to do the same for sexuality and gender.

Institutional neurosis and denunciation will get us nowhere. Though such a process is unfeasible over three days, I’d like to see a call for thorough, open and frank engagement with these questions coming from the summit.

We must also commit ourselves to an equally thorough, open and frank examination of the idea and exercise of power in the Church. This will be equally painful because it may have to confront us with the disconnect Catholics face.

As an institution, the Church remains (despite many reforms, some half-heartedly implemented) hierarchical and secretive in practice, with few structures of accountability and dialogue. Denial and cover-up is both possible and, as we’ve seen most recently in the McCarrick case, a reality.

I would suggest that a fuller and deeper examination of ecclesiology might reveal varied approaches and structures to those we have experienced in the last 200 years. New adaptations and developments, based on a long tradition of church practice, might make the Church more accountable and more transparent. Dare I say it, even more Christian?

Once again, this will involve a thorough and systematic examination that cannot be resolved in three days. But I would hope it will be on the agenda of the summit.

Now more than ever, in the face of this latest scandal, this meeting in Rome will have the eyes of much of the world (including much of the Church) on them. At very least, the bishops assembled need to be quite blunt about abuse: zero tolerance.

Without that the Church will lose whatever credibility it may have left.

To turn things around, to build credibility, the Church will have to go much further. Homophobia and denialism is no longer an option.

A commitment to re-examine sexuality, gender and power, followed by swift Vatican implementation of processes to carry forward such a commitment, is essential if we are to get out of this mess.           

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.