Read: The ‘Spotlight’ effect: This Church scandal was revealed by outsiders
The conference might have finally made some prelates, especially from the Global South (and the Vatican), aware of the depth and scope of the crisis, but it marked an even greater chasm between the Vatican and the United States. “He absolutely doesn’t get it. This is a catastrophic misreading of the faithful,” Anne Barrett-Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based advocacy organization that keeps detailed records of abuse cases and their outcomes in civil courts and Church tribunals, told me. She meant the faithful in the United States. “He spent the bulk of his speech rationalizing that abuse happens in all sectors of society. This is one of his favorite diversionary tactics.”
Barrett-Doyle also pointed to Francis’s saying that the “best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims” is “the commitment to personal and collective conversion,” that is, to raising spiritual awareness of their wounds. “Conversion is unmeasurable, conversion is unenforceable,” she said. Yes, conversion is unmeasurable and unenforceable, but it’s not surprising for the pope to speak in theological terms. This is what he meant when he warned against “justicialism,” or taking a more law-and-order approach to the crisis. And that’s precisely why so many abuse victims are frustrated that they’ve found greater justice from civil authorities than Church ones.
One of the biggest unresolved flash points here is the concept of “zero tolerance.” Many victims’ groups in the United States, France, and elsewhere are calling on the Church to issue a “one-strike” policy of defrocking priests convicted of abuse and bishops on whose watch priests abused. The term zero tolerance was not used much at the conference, and was not in a series of 21 “reflection points” that the pope asked participants to consider. If anything, the conference seemed to back away from the idea of defrocking, tending instead to focus on the idea of removing a priest from ministry in some cases rather than removing him from the clerical state.
“Removing from exercise of ministry should not be seen as a punishment but rather as the duty to protect the flock,” Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former top Vatican prosecutor of abuse cases and an adviser to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that investigates such cases, said at the conclusion of the conference.
The conference made clear that Vatican officials now talk about abuse in terms of crime and punishment, not just sin and forgiveness, but there’s still a disconnect in how civil and Church law set punishments. Canon law has taken a more pastoral approach, one that leans toward forgiveness, but Church officials seem to be aware of the bad image that creates. “The Church must not operate below the quality standards of public administration of justice if it doesn’t want to face criticism that it has an inferior legal system, which is harmful to people,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich told the conference.