It is déjà vu all over again for Canadian bishops who travelled to Rome for the Vatican’s meeting on the protection of minors in the Church.
The sexual abuse “summit” that Pope Francis convoked Feb. 21-24 in Rome, involving the presidents of more than a hundred national bishops’ conferences, was expected to garner more media attention than any Vatican event since the last conclave. But it will all be old news for Canadians.
That’s because the summit meeting will have little to offer countries like Canada which have already been dealing with the problem of priestly sexual sins and crimes for decades.
The underwhelming agenda for the summit is aimed at helping other countries catch up to Canada. Actually, it really means to help countries catch up to where the Vatican said they should be eight years ago.
An attentive world expects something more than back to the future, so the coverage of the summit will be — understandably — seen as a failed initiative, to be added to a growing list of failed initiatives on sexual abuse launched by Pope Francis.
The Holy Father knows that, and so took a remarkably direct approach on his return from World Youth Day in Panama, telling journalists on board the papal flight that he wanted to “deflate” expectations. In communications strategy, it doesn’t get more direct than that.
“Let me say that I’ve sensed somewhat inflated expectations,” he told the journalists. “We have to deflate the expectations to these three points, because the problem of abuse will continue. It’s a human problem.”
The “three points” are: a) to help bishops understand the pain sexual abuse inflicts upon victims; b) to teach them how to properly investigate reported cases; and c) to develop protocols for the entire Church to use in any alleged instance of abuse.
Canada’s bishops have been on that path since 1992, when it was the first national bishops’ conference to issue a report on sexual abuse. The report, From Pain to Hope, put in place the first national guidelines for dealing with allegations and protocols for prevention.
Last fall, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued an updated set of comprehensive guidelines, Protecting Minors From Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation.
This policy update, perhaps the most detailed in the world, was worked on for four years and involved extensive consultations with both experts within and without the Church. It came in response to updated policies in 2010 from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which handles abuse cases in Rome.
In 2011 the CDF mandated that all bishops’ conferences produce national policies. That is what prompted the exhaustive Canadian process which concluded last fall.
According to Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the CCCB, the document “brings the CCCB’s current norms up to date with a unique emphasis on the priority of protection as well as prevention, emphasizing the need for a proactive rather than a reactive response.”
All of which is to the good, but means that a summit intended to introduce bishops to the fundamentals of the response to sexual abuse is rather late in the day for Canadians.
Perhaps the Canadian experience can benefit other countries, but given that the CDF asked for this work to be done eight years ago, it appears that the summit is remedial work for the recalcitrant.
One of the organizers of the summit is Rev. Hans Zollner, a Jesuit who is Rome’s chief advocate for best practices. While sexual abuse remains a scourge, the experience of Canada and a few other countries gives him confidence that rapid progress can be made.
“The Catholic Church has been faced with this problem for the last 35 years,” he said, noting especially the reforms put in place in Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland and the United States. “It works: the number of new accusations of sexual assault in all these countries is now minimal.”
That is the “good news” on the abuse crisis, namely that the grim news is not all the news there is, and that it is possible to make the reality in the Church significantly less grim. Those are the lessons from Canada that the summit needs to hear.