Vatican City • Cardinals attending Pope Francis’ summit on preventing clergy sex abuse called Friday for a new culture of accountability in the Catholic Church to punish bishops and religious superiors when they fail to protect their flocks from predator priests.
On the second day of Francis’ extraordinary gathering of Catholic leaders, the debate shifted to how church leaders must acknowledge that decades of their own cover-ups, secrecy and fear of scandal had only worsened the sex abuse crisis.
“We must repent, and do so together, collegially, because along the way we have failed,” said Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias. “We need to seek pardon.”
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich told the 190 bishops and religious superiors that new legal procedures were needed to both report and investigate Catholic superiors when they are accused of misconduct themselves or of negligence in handling other abuse cases.
He said lay experts must be involved at every step of the process, since rank-and-file Catholics often know far better than priests what trauma the clergy sex abuse and its cover-up has caused.
“It is the witness of the laity, especially mothers and fathers with great love for the church, who have pointed out movingly and forcefully how gravely incompatible the commission, cover-up and toleration of clergy sexual abuse is with the very meaning and essence of the church,” Cupich said. “Mothers and fathers have called us to account, for they simply cannot comprehend how we as bishops and religious superiors have often been blinded to the scope and damage of sexual abuse of minors.”
Francis summoned the bishops for the four-day tutorial on preventing sex abuse and protecting children after the scandal erupted again last year in Chile and the U.S. While the Vatican for two decades has tried to crack down on the abusers themselves, it has largely given a pass to the bishops and superiors who moved the predators around from parish to parish.
Cupich called for transparent new structures to report allegations against superiors, investigate them and establish clear procedures to remove them from office if they are guilty of grave negligence in handling abuse cases.
He proposed that metropolitan bishops — who are responsible for other bishops in their area — should conduct the investigations into suspected abuse with the help of lay experts, then forward the results to the Vatican.
Cupich acknowledged his proposal differed from that prepared by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at large last year. Those procedures, which called for a code of conduct for bishops and a third-party confidential reporting system, ran into legal snags at the Vatican, which blocked U.S. bishops from voting on them in November.
At the time of the blocked vote, Cupich proposed his “metropolitan model,” which he articulated further Friday from the privileged position as an organizer of Francis’ summit.
Cupich told reporters that his proposal differed from the U.S. conference in that it was “anchored” in existing U.S. church structures for accountability and would therefore be obligatory for all bishops. The U.S. conference proposal would have been voluntary.
In addition, he said involving the regional metropolitan in the procedure would allow for pastoral follow-up to care for the victims.
More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia, and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or play down the problem.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year.
Gracias, the Indian cardinal, opened the session by saying bishops must work together to address the problem because it was erroneous to say “it’s a just a problem for the USA or Europe or Australia.”
“This, brothers and sisters, is just not true. I dare say there are cases all over the world, also in Asia, also in Africa,” Gracias said.
But Gracias’ prime-time speaking slot drew some criticism, since the Indian church isn’t known for being proactive in combating clergy sex abuse. Gracias himself has been publicly criticized for his record.
“Why was Gracias allowed to speak at the papal summit? He is a poster boy for the lack of accountability of church leaders, especially in developing countries,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of the online group BishopAccountability, which tracks the abuse scandal.
But it appeared the Vatican may have chosen as speakers precisely those cardinals whose own national churches have not confronted the scandal openly. On the summit’s opening day, for example, the keynote speaker was Filipino Cardinal Luis Tagle.
Based on public reporting and criminal prosecutions, BishopAccountability says it appears that no priests sexually abuse children in the Philippines, a scenario Barrett Doyle calls patently unrealistic. Tagle has said that cultural taboos in the Philippines often prevent victims from coming forward.
Victims have turned out in droves on the sidelines of the summit to demand greater accountability from the church, saying it has for decades put its own interests over those of who were harmed.
“They have this systematic process of covering up, moving along, transferring and not reporting,” said Tim Lennon, president of the U.S.-based survivor group SNAP.
German survivor Matthias Katsch said victims are beyond angry.
“We are really fighting for truth and justice for the survivors,” he said.
Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin said the summit had given many pause for thought.
“We are beginning to realize that perhaps there is something about the way we did things as church, about the way we are as church, that this issue really throws up for us,” Martin said. “It really makes us ask questions about ‘who are we?’”