Archived Letters from Interim Director Fr. Howell, SJ

Summit in Rome Holds Prospects—but not yet the Reality—for Reform

Posted by Pat Howell, SJ on Tuesday, March 12, 2019 at 11:00 AM PDT

Pope Francis just concluded the extraordinary summit of 190 bishops in Rome that he called to address the worldwide crisis of sexual abuse by clergy. Those of us in the United States know that such a summit is 34 years overdue. It should have been called by Pope John Paul II once it became clear that sexual abuse of minors was not “treatable” and that anyone involved in such heinous abuse needed to be removed from ministry, reported to authorities, and minimally placed on a safety plan. Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle (1975-1991) inaugurated just such policies in Western Washington by 1986. And all these have also been in place throughout the United States since the Dallas Charter of 2002, and this aggressive policy has drastically arrested the level of abuse.

What was never addressed in the Dallas Charter was the accountability of bishops. And, for Americans, that’s precisely what’s missing and urgently needed.

At the end of the summit in Rome, Pope Francis outlined 21 mandates for National Bishops Conferences to implement. In his six years as pope he has consistently affirmed the authority of local bishops’ conferences (contrary to the way that the two previous pope undermined them by insisting that nothing was binding on bishops in a national conference unless there was 100 percent unanimity on a decision).  Francis has urged great “synodality,” that is, national conferences of bishops to make vital pastoral decisions.  He has commented, “Too many issues come to Rome for decisions.  I don’t have all the answers.”  His leadership style is much more collegial.

The American bishops have already indicated a readiness to move forward on this last crucial step of accountability of bishops. As of January 1, most dioceses and religious orders have now released all the names of anyone who was ever credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults.  The Jesuits West did so in December, although those of the former Oregon Province were already publicly listed on a province website since the end of bankruptcy proceedings. 

What’s needed now and has been needed for 34 years is the oversight of these processes by independent boards of lay leaders, experts in the field, especially with the inclusion of parents and women so that frank, honest transparency shines a bright light on what has too long been in the darkness and hidden.  In addition, church leaders and lay leaders need to listen to the tragic stories of those who have been abused as children or teenagers; such a listening practice will provide the best safeguards and motivation for all that needs to be done.

In many ways, what I have summarized above is simply “best practice,” though it is a significant operational change. But ultimately what is needed is structural change. Such a genuine reform will include the end of clericalism; leadership of women in the church; seminary education integrated with both future clergy and laity; deep-seated financial transparency; a shift away from the bishop being the “sole corporation”; lay trusteeship (first proposed by Bishop John England of South Carolina in the 1830s); screening and recommendations for the appointment of bishops by both clergy and laity; and so forth.

Meanwhile here at ICTC, we continue to examine the situation in the Church through multiple lenses and informed discussion. Here are two opportunities for your participation.

May the Holy Spirit breathe afresh over this chaos and inspire a new creation.

Patrick Howell, S.J., interim director
Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture