Vatican Sexual Abuse Meeting Is Destined to Fail—To Stop the Problem or the Decline

With no women, lay people, or survivors invited, nothing will change and everyone will go home feeling righteous about having "done" something. The something will be more prayer than policy, more story than analysis, more circling the wagons than opening the doors to the light of justice.

Pope Francis on September 24, 2018. ILMARS ZNOTINS/AFP/Getty Images

Within just the past week it was reported that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), allowed Rev. John T. Keller to preside at Mass on the very day that he was listed as among those credibly accused of sexual abuse. According to the Cardinal’s diocese, the official explanation for this curious decision is that it had already been scheduled.

To paraphrase Dr. Hunt: you can’t make this stuff up. – eds


Pope Francis’ agenda for the highly anticipated February 21-24, 2019 meeting in Rome with presidents of the national bishops’ conferences around the world is really about branding and market share despite public focus on sexual abuse and coverups. The Roman Catholic brand is in tatters, its market share shrinking by the minute.

The advertised theme of the ill-fated gathering is “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” with the explicit goal “that all of the Bishops clearly understand what they need to do to prevent and combat the worldwide problem of the sexual abuse of minors.” This is a losing proposition from the outset. The meeting is being held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.

Virtually any other global corporate board with such a serious product problem and as profound a public relations disaster would have met months ago. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that exposed hundreds of priest abusers and thousands of cases of abuse, and the extraordinary exploits of the alleged serial abuser Cardinal Theodore McCarrick broke in late summer of 2018. High-ranking Vatican official Australian Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of sexually abusing young boys in December of 2018. How long does it take to get a plane ticket to Rome? Why not convene a Zoom meeting to save time, money, and face? Any PR flack knows that step one is to put out the fire ASAP.

Heads of national bishops’ conferences are the last people needed for a constructive conversation on sexual abuse. Their collective inattention, coverups, and tepid excuses are a major source of the problem. Why are there no lay people involved in this meeting? Just one would make headlines. A meeting of lay people and clergy, victims and perpetrators, young people and elders, people of all genders and sexual orientations would signal seriousness of purpose. Imagine if women were at the table, even one. Brand would soar, but it is not to be.

Francis has been tamping down expectations of what issues will emerge at the confab. He told reporters at one of his famous press conferences at 35,000 feet that “We have to deflate the expectations… because the problem of abuse will continue. It’s a human problem.” What he meant was that instead of announcing any substantive changes in church structure and practice, he will gather the top management in a public show of penitence and unity, and not much else.

Expected topics are explanation of the pain of victim survivors, vague strategies for investigating cases, and some hints of how the hierarchy will respond to subsequent cases of abuse of young people. In short, nothing will change and everyone will go home feeling righteous about having ‘done’ something. The something will be more prayer than policy, more story than analysis, more circling the wagons than opening the doors to the light of justice.

Surprises are always possible from the Vatican. But I predict that this problematic meeting will further erode the Catholic brand and send ‘market share’ racing out the heavy bronze doors. The latest shocker was the resignation of Austrian priest Hermann Geissler, a longtime staff member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the dicastery that is “currently competent to address the delict of sexual abuse of minors.” Theologian Doris Wagner-Reisinger of Germany accused Mr. Geissler of trying to kiss her in the confessional in 2009; she was told that he had admitted it and been punished. That was several years ago, and he has been on the loose and employed in the very office dedicated to deal with similar incidents. It is hard to make up these cases.

Another jaw dropper of late is a report that Argentine Archbishop Gustavo Zanchetta is under investigation for untoward sexual behavior including naked selfies and improper relations with seminarians. He was allegedly reported to Rome in 2015 and 2017, but he quietly left his diocese in Oran, Argentina. A highly placed Argentine colleague in Rome named Francis gave him a job in the Vatican’s financial office, where perhaps he was a colleague of the aforementioned Cardinal George Pell. I quiver at the thought of those office parties.

How much more can Catholics learn about the inner workings of their church and still stay connected? Apparently, for an increasing number of people, that boat of Peter has sailed. For example, in Chile where a major scandal unfolded such that all of the bishops were allegedly forced to tender their resignations, the numbers are plummeting. Ten years ago, 73% of Chileans called themselves Catholic. Today that percentage is 45 with reports that in Latin America as a whole numbers are down 20% in the same period.

In Switzerland in November 2018, six prominent progressive Catholic women left the Church by filing the requisite papers that relieved them of contributing church taxes. Four are former members of the Swiss parliament and two are highly regarded feminist theologians.

For these women, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Francis’ October 10, 2018 statement that having an abortion is akin to hiring a hitman. Enough already. They did what countless others in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have done before them: namely, to reach a breaking point and make the break. Since church taxes are collected in the cantons, one writes to the cantonal authorities and effectively ‘deregisters’ from the roster. Consequently, one cannot get employment in the church whether custodial staff or tenured professor, nor can one avail oneself of the church offices for weddings, funerals, and the like.

These women, especially the theologians, have been active for decades in church change. They wrote: “Even though we experience in our local churches a ‘different church’ that represents our values of gender equality and a good life for all people, we can no longer pretend that we are members of the Roman Catholic Church with the Roman Magisterium and the Clergy Church… Although we remain committed to our ‘other church’ with their social engagements, and our existing church taxes should be donated directly to these or other social projects. But we no longer want to support the Roman Catholic power apparatus with its patriarchal theology with our membership. We go.” And so, they did. And surely others went with them.

In the U.S., there is no such public way to repudiate being a baptismal statistic. Separation of church and state means that there are no church taxes as such. But writer Melinda Henneberger did the closest thing in her USA Today op-ed entitled “I’m about to become a former Catholic: Betrayals on abuse have finally driven me away.” She identified herself as “a true-believing, rosary-and-novena-praying graduate of St. Mary’s elementary School, the University of Notre Dame, and l’Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium.” She concludes, “I never thought it would come to this.”

Well, it has for many people as the scandals cascade and the churches close. The good news is that no one has to pretend anymore, and that is one good step toward a chastened, changed Catholicsm.