The much anticipated summit on sexual abuse by clergy convened at the Vatican in February. Attendees watched prerecorded testimony by abuse victims from each continent, detailing sexual abuse, physical assaults, forced abortions and resulting lifelong psychological trauma. As the summit got underway, two prominent cardinals, Blase Cupich of Chicago and Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotà, cited clericalism as the root cause of sexual abuse in the church. Cupich described the “clerical mentality” as one in which priests “think because they’re in a position of power… they can get away with this kind of thing,” an attitude Gómez characterized as a “distortion of the meaning of ministry.” Cupich introduced a proposal that would authorize an accused cleric’s superior to launch investigations and to incorporate lay experts throughout the process. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, also expressed dissatisfaction with the “head-in-the-sand” status quo, suggesting a new Vatican dicastery be created to address the “global emergency” of abuse and cover-ups. Similar to the Cupich proposal, this new office would grant greater authority at the regional level to investigate allegations. Coleridge joined Cupich and Gómez in citing clericalism as a root of both the abuse and the conspiracy to conceal allegations and protect the accused.
Observers of the summit, however, came away with what they had expected: all talk, no action. Rather than a change in policy, the pope recommended “a change of heart.” In response to Francis’ 21 points for reflection, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued 21 points of action for preventing abuse and supporting survivors. The pontiff’s emphasis on spiritual formation over legislative action confirmed the fears of former members of the Vatican’s commission to study sexual abuse instituted by Pope Francis in 2014, who held that statements out of Rome during the summit “intimate that the original role and purpose of the [commission] has shifted from ‘policy change’ to ‘education.’” Former commissioners called on attendees of the papal summit to actively reevaluate the commission’s structure, purpose and efficacy. Marie Collins, who resigned from the commission in 2017, joined several other former members in calling for the commission to reinstitute itself as a body independent of the Vatican, lamenting that “at this point the pontifical commission seems to have completely lost its way.”