The Vatican abuse summit


A Marist brother and clinical psychologist who has extensive experience of dealing with sexual abuse within the Catholic Church assesses the importance of February’s Vatican abuse summit.

The special ‘Abuse Summit’ which took place in the Vatican from 21st – 24th February was the third significant gathering that has taken place in Rome since the beginning of the abuse crisis.  In April 2003, the Pontifical Academy for Life was responsible for the organisation of a conference entitled ‘Abuse of Children and Young People by Catholic Priests and Religious.’  A number of experts in sexual abuse and treatment made presentations about various dimensions of this complex topic.  This resulted in the publication of a book with scholarly articles.  At best, this symposium provided some formation and knowledge for people who worked in the Vatican.[1]

In 2012 the Gregorian University hosted a conference entitled ‘Towards Healing and Renewal’ with representatives from many bishops’ conferences and Superiors General of Congregations of men and women.  Marie Collins, a victim of sexual abuse, addressed the conference, and there were a number of women present.  Progress.  I said at the time that this conference established a new baseline for the Church regarding its response to child sexual abuse.  This was partly true.

We now know that the investigation into (historical) abuse from the State of Pennsylvania (and others), the revelations about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, as well as the scandal of abuse in Chile, (along with the grave mishandling of the allegations in Chile from the Pope himself), precipitated the decision of Pope Francis to call all the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences in the world, along with representatives of the Religious Congregations of men and women, to February’s extraordinary Abuse Summit.

What was achieved?

The Summit was structured around the key words of Responsibility, Accountability and Transparency.  Cardinals and Archbishops made presentations outlining the importance of these themes and their implications for the Church.  The presentations were laced with the kind of Vatican-speak that we have come to expect from such talks.  However, once the jargon and ‘respectful words’ are put aside, the content was striking in its honesty and boldness.

Cardinal Cupich called for transparent legal procedures, and Cardinal Marx addressed squarely the fact that in the past documents had been hidden and destroyed.  Cardinal Tagle said: ‘People are rightly asking: Have you, who are called to have the smell of the sheep upon you, not instead run away when you found the stench of the filth inflicted on children and vulnerable people you were supposed to protect, too strong to endure?’

Cardinal Salazar addressed one of the key issues at the beginning of his presentation:

A brief analysis of what has happened shows us that it is not only a matter of sexual deviations or pathologies in the abusers, but that there is a deeper root too.  This is the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest.  This has a name: clericalism.


I was co-editor of a book on the sexual abuse of children which appeared not long after the Gregorian Conference on Child Abuse. [2]  In that collection I wrote a chapter on the Church as a system and how it contributed to the sexual abuse of children.  At the time I feared that I was treading on dangerous waters.  During the Gregorian Conference I remember one of the participants asking a well-informed presenter about the system in the Church and how it contributed to the abuse of children.  I watched as the speaker deftly replied: ‘The system used by the perpetrators, known as grooming, illustrates how they managed to abuse children’.  It was skillfully done, but also avoided the question.  I wondered if the speaker sensed that the time was not ripe to confront this challenging topic.

This attitude changed once Pope Francis named the culture of the Church, and the system of protecting perpetrators, as part of the problem, when he responded to the situation in Chile.  In his letter of 20th August 2018 Pope Francis said:

‘Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating              the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change’.

He explicitly named clericalism as part of the problem, and the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.

Sr Veronica Openibo, Superior General of the Holy Child Sisters, took aim at this directly when she said:

‘Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, misuse of money, clericalism – we felt that many times – gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general?  Is it that the clerical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions’?

She challenged the existence of minor seminaries, which continue to be popular in Africa, which, she said, were places which fostered clericalism.  Along with other presenters, like Cardinal Tagle and Cardinal Gracias, she dismissed any suggestion that the sexual abuse of children (and adults) was a Western phenomenon.  This focus on clericalism and the structures of power in the Church is a new and welcome development that found its voice at this summit – thanks to the leadership of Pope Francis.

The voice of victims

Another welcome and significant development was the place of victims.  On the first full day of the summit the participants watched videos of victims from five continents.  I have spoken to two people who were present at the summit and they said that these were perhaps the most significant part of the meeting, and had most impact.  As Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest and victim advocate, pointed out, there were also many victims of abuse present in Rome during those days.[3]  They also found their voice.

The participants I spoke to also highlighted the young Spanish-speaking victim of clerical abuse who played the violin to express his feelings after addressing the Pope and the bishops during the penitential service.  You can see the Pope listening intently.  This moving moment stood out in a memorable way, and communicated the fact that victims cannot always put their experience into words in a way that adequately expresses their experience.[4]

The Pope and many bishops have spoken of the need for a conversion of heart to respond in a positive way to victims, with a desire to listen to them, to bring healing and to be transparent and non-defensive.  The experience of listening to victims, and to meeting them personally, where possible, does more to create a conversion of heart that attendance at conferences and workshops.  In that sense, this summit represented a significant step forward.

The voice of women

The third significant aspect of the summit for me was the prominence given to women at the meeting. Valentina Alazraki, a journalist, began her presentation with the following words:

‘At first glance, there is little in common between you, bishops and cardinals, and me, a Catholic laywoman with no particular position in the Church, and moreover a journalist.  Yet we share something very powerful: we all have a mother; we are here because a woman gave birth to us.  Compared to you, perhaps I have an additional privilege: I am a mother first and foremost’.

Ten religious sisters took part in the Vatican summit.  They were all members of the executive board of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).  Gabriella Gambino and Linda Ghisoni, lay women who work at the Vatican, also participated.


Many people have criticised the summit for a lack of bold announcements or decisions that would help to address this difficult topic.  It has been noted that over the years Popes and bishops have made denunciations and promises, have apologised and asked for forgiveness, have said how appalled and scandalised they are etc., and have used strong words to criticise abusive priests and bishops and the failings of the past.  It has also been noted, however, that the Church only seems to respond when there is a media led crisis.

There were strong criticisms of clericalism, yet if you look at video footage of the conference hall, the Pope sits on the dais, with the cardinals in front of him, bishops to their right and left and behind them, and up in the far distant corner, you can make out other figures.  I was told that the first row was for priests and brothers, the second row was for women religious and the third row was for lay people.  Whatever the justification for this seating arrangement, no progress will be made in tackling clericalism until the Church finds a way to banish the trappings of hierarchy, when they are unnecessary and serve no purpose, and clerical status from its way of proceeding.

Yes…but . . .

My final reservation about the summit comes as a result of comments from participants who shared their experiences with me.  They said that interventions were always polite, but there were some participants who made use of the verbal structure which begins with agreement with the speaker, followed by a qualification: ‘Yes… but…’  This could be heard from certain bishops and cardinals, particularly from parts of the world where there was still denial and avoidance of this topic.  I will paraphrase Fritz Perls, the Founder of Gestalt Therapy who remarked that, ‘Everything before ‘but’ is window dressing.’  One of the significant advances of the Summit is that it is no longer acceptable to publicly deny or minimise the crisis.

However, if I can quote Viscount Morley (1874), ‘You have not converted a man because you have silenced him.’  I suspect that there will be many bishops who remained silent in the conference hall, but who are not yet convinced about the urgency of this topic or of the importance of implementing safeguarding policies and procedures, of taking responsibility for creating safe places for children and people at risk (including disabled, women, religious sisters and young men and women in houses of formation), or of being accountable and transparent.  Sadly, I suspect that it will take more crises and media exposés before they will change their behaviour and policies, whatever of their hearts.

Brother Brendan Geary ends his term of office as Provincial of the Marist Province of West Central Europe in April 2019.

[1] Hanson, R.K., Pfäfflin, F., & Lütz, M. (2003). Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and legal perspectives. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

[2] Geary, Brendan, and Greer, Joanne Marie. (2012). The Dark Night of the Catholic Church. Kevin Mayhew Ltd.

[3] Doyle, Tom. (19th March 2019). The Abuse Summit Achieved something, but not what pope or bishops expected.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.