As Pope Francis called bishops worldwide to Rome last weekend for the Vatican’s first summit on clerical sex abuse, local reactions varied on what it accomplished.
Francis closed out his extraordinary summit on preventing clergy sex abuse by vowing to confront abusers with “the wrath of God” felt by the faithful, end the cover-ups by their superiors and prioritize the victims of this “brazen, aggressive and destructive evil.”
But his failure to offer a concrete action plan to hold bishops accountable when they failed to protect their flocks from predators disappointed survivors, who had expected more from the first-ever global Catholic summit of its kind.
Clear action is needed to ensure transparency and accountability, said Larry Antonsen, 72, a leader in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests’ Chicago chapter, who said an Augustinian order priest abused him at 15.
“They had a chance in Rome to do something monumental to get their credibility back,” he said. “They did nothing. They did nothing to help themselves.”
Experts: Next few months will tell
Francis delivered his remarks at the end of Mass before 190 Catholic bishops and religious superiors who were summoned to Rome after more abuse scandals sparked a credibility crisis in the Catholic hierarchy and in Francis’ own leadership.
The statement was more about motivating bishops in their own dioceses, said Professor Thomas Albert Howard, the Dusenberg Chair of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.
“If nothing happens in several months, it will have been a flop,” he said. “It’s sort of going to play out now.”
The biggest impact is what happens at the local level, said the Rev. Kevin Scalf, chairman of the theology department at the Calumet College of St. Joseph.
“Pope Francis has placed greater responsibility on the part of local bishops since they are closest to their immediate contexts and cultures,” he said. “The Vatican and every Catholic bishop throughout the world is charged with convoking a strategic task force with local experts in related areas. A forthcoming handbook from the Holy See will contain specific tasks and obligations of local bishops.”
Francis’ comments ‘are pretty clear’.
“I think that Pope Francis' comments are pretty clear: he wants the leaders of the Church to be more accountable for addressing abuse issues and to take responsibility for times that they have failed to act swiftly or appropriately when they have heard about credible allegations of abuse,” the Rev. Michael Yadron, of Munster’s St. Thomas More Parish, said via email.
“Here ‘in the trenches,’ the Church has done much work to provide safe environments for the people we serve,” he said. “I think the present summit highlights some of the hierarchy's lack of responsibility and calls them to task. They must take responsibility for their action as well as their inaction or they will not regain lost credibility.”
Last year, the Gary Diocese released a list of 10 priests it found with “credible” accusations. Many were publicly known since the early 2000s. At least two others who served in the diocese at one time emerged from lists in other states.
The Rome summit “builds on the positive work done here in the United States regarding the protection of minors from sexual abuse,” Gary Diocese Bishop Donald Hying said in a statement.
“We need to continue to respond with consistent compassion to the victims of sexual abuse by clergy from past decades and now we also need to be aware of abusive relationships between clergy and adults,” he said.
“Here in the Gary Diocese we remain committed to helping victims of sexual abuse, whether it be by clergy or anyone else, and maintain a safe environment for all of our people, especially our precious children.”
‘They did not go far enough.’
“It’s not just the survivors that are upset,” the Rev. Marie Siroky, of Plymouth, Ind.’s First United Church of Christ, said of the Rome summit. “There are bishops that are upset that they did not go far enough.”
“They say the same thing that they’ve always said: ‘We’re sorry, follow the rules,’” said Siroky, a Gary native and former Catholic nun. “It was very disappointing, because nothing changed.”
With abuse allegations, the bigger picture of how the church handled it has come out in legal filings, whether state investigations or lawsuits.
“Courts still have to file subpoenas for (internal documents),” she said. “That’s problematic.”
Since last year, Attorney Generals from more than a dozen states including Michigan and Illinois have begun investigations, subpoenaing internal church documents to look for what officials knew over several decades.
Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s office so far has declined. A spokeswoman said previously they would investigate if a fresh criminal case emerged.
In December, a preliminary report from now former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan found 500 more accused priests there than the church had publicly acknowledged.
It found that the church’s six Illinois archdioceses have done a woefully inadequate job of investigating allegations and in some cases did not investigate them at all or notify the state’s child welfare agency.
Madigan’s office said that while the dioceses have disclosed 45 more names of those credibly accused, the total number of names disclosed is only 185 and raises questions about the church’s response to the crisis.
Antonsen, now 72, a Chicago native, said he has found purpose helping others deal with their own abuse. Francis needed to fire all cardinals accused at any time of helping to protect child predators, he said.
The church has done a “pretty horrendous job of trying to police itself until now,” he said. “This is all about protecting children, not protecting themselves.”
The Associated Press contributed.