This is a dangerous moment in the global struggle against clerical abuse. There is a growing perception that, after almost two decades of concerted effort, Rome is starting to backslide.
Is there any truth in this? Not if you rely solely on information from the Holy See press office. At the start of the year, the Vatican released a letter from Pope Francis to the world’s bishops. “I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst,” he wrote. Then the Pope named Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican department that has dealt with abuse cases since 2001. Shortly afterwards, Francis wrote the preface to a book by a Swiss abuse survivor.
Taken together, these gestures sent an unmistakable message: Rome is committed to completing the fight launched by Benedict XVI, who laicised an estimated 800 abusers during his eight-year papacy.
But beyond official Vatican statements there are troubling signs. Last month the Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi published a book claiming that the Pope has done “almost nothing” to root out abuse. Yet Fittipaldi is far from neutral: he was one of two journalists tried by the Vatican for his role in the “VatiLeaks II” scandal.
Consider, then, the words of Kathleen McCormack, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was created in 2014 to guide the global battle against abuse. She said last week that the commission was struggling to protect children. “Our budget would be what you would do in a diocese, but we’re dealing with the whole world,” she explained. According to AP, the commission’s two major initiatives – a tribunal for bishops suspected of mishandling abuse and a template to help dioceses create safeguarding policies – have been mothballed.
The commission itself has not been slacking. It has held eight plenary meetings in the past three years. Members have had more than 50 educational engagements in five continents in the past 12 months. Nevertheless, the commission appears to be facing obstruction.
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