Will There Be Another Global Gathering Of Bishops?

Pope considers emergency ‘abuse summit’
Senior clergy call for crisis gathering of bishops as fears grow that the scandal is spiralling out of control
By John Phillips in Rome – Independent – Sunday, 28 March 2010

As pilgrims, tourists and the faithful congregate in St Peter’s Square today to collect olive branches during a solemn Palm Sunday Mass, an embattled Pope Benedict XVI is coming under mounting pressure to call an emergency synod of bishops from around the world to hammer out a new strategy to deal with the worsening child abuse scandal, Vatican sources say.


A number of Roman Catholic prelates have strongly urged the Holy See that such an extraordinary synod, or conference, be held on the grounds that the German pontiff and the Vatican evidently cannot cope effectively on their own with the spiralling image crisis. (I suppose dealing with the image crisis is a lot more palatable than actually dealing with the abuse crisis.)


“There is a deep feeling of unease in the Vatican at the moment,” said one well-placed source in the Holy See. “Senior people in the Curia feel under siege from parts of the international media as they see it trying to nail the Pope for allegedly covering up or mishandling abuse cases.


“Many bishops have let it be known they want Benedict to convene a special synod or worldwide conference of bishops to examine the problem because of a growing feeling that the Vatican cannot handle this.”

The source added: “There is a realisation that the scandal is not going to stop. It is not one country or five countries but an increasing number.”


Among aspects of the paedophilia maelstrom to be dealt with, Benedict currently has resignation letters from three Irish bishops sitting on his desk in the Apostolic Palace. Even as he considers them, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the primate of all Ireland, is considering whether to resign, a decision which, as he said in his St Patrick’s day homily, he is reflecting on between now and Easter.


The three bishops, James Moriarty, Raymond Field and Eamonn Walsh, tendered their resignations following the publication of the Murphy report into abuse.


“It is quite possible that Brady will resign,” said one Vatican insider. “He could go with his head held high and if he goes, others would follow.” (I imagine retirement or resignation is starting to look pretty good to a number of red hats. Guys perfectly happy to let the current captain go down with his barque.)


Vatican sources poured scorn on the suggestion on Friday by Der Spiegel magazine that Benedict might consider resigning over the affair.


However, in addition to the damage to the image of the Catholic church from the scandals, described as a “catastrophe” by some senior Vatican officials, Benedict will celebrate his 83rd birthday on 16 April, and papal advisers are concerned about the effect the stress from handling the crisis may have on his health as he braces himself for another round of tiring public appearances celebrating Easter. Before last Christmas, papal doctors told the pontiff, who suffered two minor strokes before his election, to slow down, persuading him to slim down his gruelling Christmas schedule and prohibiting him from making any more tiring long-haul foreign trips. (Retirement for health reasons may be more palatable to Vatican insiders than forced retirement for mismanagement on an epic scale.)


The Vatican media and its tiny press office have gone into overdrive to fend off criticism of Benedict himself for his record during his period as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 and as head of the Holy Office from 1982 to 2005.


Benedict has received messages of support from around the world, with many commentators pointing out that from the outset of his pontificate he made it clear he intended to clean out what he termed emphatically “the filth” in the church, marking himself out as the first occupant of St Peter’s throne publicly to declare war on sexual abuse by paedophile priests. (The problem with his war is that it hasn’t included the officers and has been incredibly lenient on the foot soldiers.)


The Vatican’s insistence that coverage in the United States by The New York Times and other newspapers of the case of the American priest Lawrence Murphy has been biased has found considerable resonance among many hardened veterans of the Holy See press corps. They feel that Father Lombardi, the Pope’s chief spokesman, a Jesuit who is also head of Vatican Radio, made a fair point by underlining that the late priest’s alleged abuse of 200 deaf schoolboys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, dated back to the period from the 1950s to the 1970s and was only brought to the attention of the Vatican in 1996 when Murphy was dying and his case had been legally proscribed by judicial authorities in the US. (OK, but there were also the Bryndan Smyth and Maciel cases occurring at the same time and the Vatican was made aware of those cases long before there was any action.)


In an attempt to bolster the church’s flagging image, the extraordinary synod of bishops would examine issues that critics say were missing from the Pope’s pastoral letter to the Irish church last weekend, especially what new administrative penalties, including removal, should be adopted to discipline bishops who cover up abuse. The culture of secrecy is seen not only as bad in itself, but as something that may have encouraged abuse because priests knew they may be shielded from the full rigours of the law. (And given fresh territory with ecclesiastical blessing.)


The Pope’s advisers see the abuse crisis as “a catastrophe” for the image of the church and watched aghast as the Pope’s brother was targeted. “Benedict’s brother came out badly as an irascible guy who clipped children behind the ear and threw a chair at choristers and who may have heard about abuse but done nothing,” said the insider. “At the time this was par for the course, with the general attitude being hear no evil, see no evil.”


The resignation of the Irish bishop John Magee, described as a removal by Vatican sources rather than a voluntary move, has nevertheless gone some way towards convincing church circles that the Pope is willing to see heads roll. “The removal of Magee was a big thing here because he had a lot of clout, he had a lot of friends and had been secretary to three popes. He had little option but to resign because he knew what is in the [Irish government] report,” said one source. (Was he removed or did he resign? Accepting a resignation is not the same as involuntary removal for cause.)


The feeling that the Holy See is out of its depth was underlined by Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, or chief prosecutor, who is seen as having done a lot of very good work dealing with abuse cases. He acknowledged that his department was insufficiently staffed to handle paperwork that often runs into thousands of pages for just one victim.


Cardinal Walter Kasper has also defended the Pope, saying he was the first to recognise the need for a harsher stance against offenders. He says attacks on Benedict go “beyond any limit of justice and loyalty“. Cardinal Kasper said in an interview published yesterday in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera that the church needs to be more vigilant and that the path the church is on is “irreversible”. (There’s that loyalty word popping up again.)


Next month the Pope is scheduled to travel to Malta, the day after celebrating his birthday with his brother in the papal apartments high above St Peter’s Square. The visit will be the first of a series of short trips his doctors have authorised as long as he stays in his “backyard” in the Mediterranean and Europe.


The abuse issue has also provided an arena for clashes between commentators. The Daily Telegraph’s Damian Thompson has attacked the religious affairs correspondent of The Times, Ruth Gledhill, taking her to task for what he perceives as anti-Catholic bias. And several writers have criticised Christopher Hitchens for writing of the Pope: “Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil.” (I’m surprised Damian Thompson didn’t write his missive in Latin.)



The Independent is also featuring another article today based on an NCR article from 2001. This one deals with the abuse of nuns by priests in Africa and elsewhere. It too, is worth a read because the abuse of nuns by male religious is another one of those closet doors the Vatican has done much to keep closed. It had too if it’s campaign to isolate clerical abuse to gay priests in Anglo countries was to carry the day. I’m glad to see this article resurrected because full disclosure of priestly abuse is mandatory and it is hardly isolated to ‘gay’ priests in Anglo countries.

Should the Pope call for an emergency synod of the world’s bishops, the good which might come out of such a gathering would depend on a number of factors. The first factor is if it would indeed be a full gathering or just a selection of hand picked representatives. The second issue is who would set the agenda and what would be it’s scope. If it consisted solely of a Dallas type meeting it would accomplish nothing that couldn’t be done in national synods. If, on the other hand, it was convened to take a serious look at the priesthood and reform of the clerical system, some good might come of all the misery of all the abuse victims.

If it is essentially called as some type of ‘loyalty’ test where the assembled bishops rubber stamp Vatican bureaucratic proposals it will be a disaster. If it does not include input from abuse victims, laity and women, it will amount to nothing more than a repudiation of the collegiality concepts laid out in the documents of Vatican II and not represent meaningful reform at all.

Should it be taken over by conservative elements and used to further their agenda of ‘reforming the reform’, it will be an unmitigated disaster and spell the end of Roman Catholicism as it’s currently known.

The fact there are voices in the Vatican even calling for such a gathering is indicative of just how serious this issue has now become, and perhaps just how close the media is to uncovering some real truth. If it should happen that the code of silence which surrounds the culture of the Vatican itself is broken, the recent revelations will seem like the good old days.


13 Responses

  1. A Synod would be great but Vatican Bureancrats fear that getting the bishops together would be like another council which they are stil trying to undermine. Changes might be forthcoming that exceed anything they might want. Benedict who has changed his personality from the confrontational peritus at Vatican II to that of an insider fighting rearguard action would unleash a massive battle over the policies of the last 30 years. The centralization of the Church is a thorn in the sides of many prelates.
    Anyway Malachy of Irepand in the 13th century prophecied only one more Pope before the end of the world: Peter the Roman. This
    one is “Gloriae Oliviae” Glory of the Olives(another name for Benedictines/Peacmakers and could finish his term offfice making peace and retiring to a Monastery.

  2. It could be that retiring to a monastery may be the only peace offering he needs to make, as that would open the doors to real reform.

  3. Did you see the latest outrage by the Roman bishops?

    In retaliation for a Maine homeless agency’s support for gay civil rights, the bishops have slashed $40,000 of funding to the homeless.


    Catholics for Marriage Equality is asking for donations to the homeless agency to make up the loss of funding.


    The Roman Pharisees’ obsessive homophobia was already unhealthy, but now it’s become cold and ruthless.

  4. “Pope considers ‘abuse summit'”. Really? Where in the article does it suggest that the Pope is considering such a summit?

  5. It doesn’t. It says: “Many bishops have let it be known they want Benedict to convene a special synod or worldwide conference of bishops to examine the problem because of a growing feeling that the Vatican cannot handle this.”

    Many bishops have let the Pope know, and that means Benedict must be thinking about it, even if he’s think negatively about it.

  6. Colkoch:

    Third line: Pope considers emergency “abuse summit”. There is no indication in the article that he is thinking about it – even negatively.

    I don’t see a reason to call a summit for issues that are a matter of administration, and not faith.

    I agree that this issue is a huge problem for the Church. It seems like it is more of a PR problem than anything else. It is not a theological problem. And, for a number of years, procedures have been strengthened to cut down on abusive situations. So, I don’t suspect that it is a current administrative concern, although I could be wrong.

    Much of the PR problem is being caused by people interested in pounding the Vatican on other agendas. There isn’t much that can be done about these unfair allegations, except for the Vatican to live through them. The abuse was caused by people, not the institutions.

  7. The line of defense which the Vatican is using to prevent any deposition of the Pope before a secular court is that the local bishops are not employees of the Pope. That is true. They are successors of the apostles in their own right. However only since the Code of Canon Law of 1917 has the Pope appointed local bishops worldwide. This untraditional practice may undermine the line of thinking that they are trying to use now. While some may claim the Church is not a democracy neither is it a monarchy. There must be some accomodation so that a more traditional stance may be taken and more local concerns addressed. The “Summit” would perhaps offer better input than that which the Pope receives now from Vatican insiders. If celibacy must go only a demand from the whole Church assembled would ovecome the opposition of the career church hierarchs. There must be some universal issue that has created such a widespread occasion for the sexual predation of chidren by clergy: the seminary systems; the theological myopia; the breakdown of the family. Whatever it is an Ultramontane Approach will not work but rather a Gathering of All the Bishops. This may be how God will get the Church to be what God wants it to be in spite of the fallilibility of the bishops. Remember it was a persecution in Jerusalem that first scattered the Apostles from Jerusalem and began the evangelization of the non-Jewish world.

  8. Jack,

    As a lawyer, I have to believe that the main reason lawyers are going after the Church is that its structure allows for a recovery from Church assets. In most demoninations, lawyers can only go after the pastor, which is usually slim pickings.

    I don’t know what an abuse summit would accomplish. What would the bishops be requesting that isn’t already being done?

  9. As I mentioned above the seminary systems that trained individuals in the 1950’s and 1960’s and to which some believe we should return who were the perpetrators of much of this abuse; the question of celibacy which is central to the problem; e.g. much of South America has clergy which have de facto live-in wives while the bishops look the other way; otherwise there would be no sacramental ministers. there is a dishonesty and blindness practiced on official levels which promotes a network of looking the other way which has done harm. The narrow theological vision which has disparaged sexuality as part of a total human character development; this is often by neglect rather than overt distortion. There still remains a Jansenist Puritanical strain in much of our teaching and practice.
    While these may not be legal issues any “Abuse Summit” would certainly need to look at what occasioned the abuse.

    • Jack,

      The rule of celibacy probably should be revisited. However, the rule of non-celibacy has its own administration problems. My understanding is that the rule of celibacy was developed to deal with power issues that resulted in ministers preferring family over parishioners resulting in substantial corruption.

      I think we sometimes forget that the ways that the Church dealt with the abuse were common societal ways at the time. Sexual abuse is not a problem unique to the Church. The Church is an easy target. For example, we read almost daily about teachers and students involved in sexual affairs. Does anyone go screaming about the institutional practices of the schools? Is society and the media dredging up 20, 30, and 40 year old cases against the schools?

      It is important to put these allegations into the proper perspective.

  10. I suspect the scope might be more than just celibacy and sexual morality. It could be there are some bishops who are genuinely concerned that even though they followed Vatican directives as instructed, they are now being hung out to dry.

    It could even be there are some bishops who are seriously concerned about creeping infallibility and that various Vatican dicasteries have entirely too much power relative to individual bishops conferences.

    There could be a lot of other reasons for bishops to want such a gathering, beyond the one’s Jack lists, and even though some issues may seem peripheral to the abuse scandal, they really aren’t in my opinion.

    Ultimately pedophelia (and any other type of clerical abuse) is a power issue, not a sexual issue. Sex is the tool through which the power is expressed. As long as the priesthood is perceived to be ontologically superior to the laity, and operates from its own rigid caste system which places obedience and loyalty over any other concern, power and power sharing have to be discussed.

    So far the Vatican has refused to deal with clerical abuse as a power issue, except to say they don’t want to share their power with open gays, married priests, or women. On the power issue, and I don’t mean political power, it’s still business as usual. That has to change.

    • In the short term, I have to believe that the Vatican is going to circle the wagons. The first order of business is to separate the justifiable concerns from the unwarranted attacks.

      In my opinion, most of the charge is being led by people more interested in destroying the Church than than in reforming it. Hence, I think that Benedict is going to continue to concentrate on what he has been doing rather than doing anything rash.

      • In the short term, yes: the Vatican is surely circling the wagons. The real question, is, is this enough, or apprporiate? The problems go way deeper than simple problems of abuse and the reposne to i, and to fundamental issues of control and accountability.

        The slwo power grab by the episcopal oligarchy over 200 years, and especially over the past two centuries, is wholly unjustified interms of either Scripture or the practice of trhe early Church. It is now urgent that this be undone

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: