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Vatican child protection leader: ‘Building credibility needs a track record’

Vatican child protection leader: ‘Building credibility needs a track record’

Fr. Andrew Small was appointed in June to one of the most important positions in the Catholic Church’s fight against abuse.

The English priest was named secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors pro tempore (“for the time being”) at a significant moment of transition for the body founded by Pope Francis in 2014.

The decree establishing the commission eight years ago defined its “specific task” as advising the pope on “the most opportune initiatives for protecting minors and vulnerable adults.”

In 2019, Pope Francis took another significant step when he issued the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, setting out new norms for combating abuse and holding Church leaders accountable for their handling of cases. Article 2 of the document called on all dioceses to establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for the submission of abuse reports.

In March this year, Pope Francis released a new Vatican constitution firmly establishing the commission within the Roman Curia, the Church’s central government. In April, the pope asked commission members to draw up an annual report on worldwide safeguarding efforts — a challenging task.

Fr. Small was born in Liverpool in 1968. He studied at the city’s St. Francis Xavier College (whose alumni include Vatican “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Gallagher) and then read law. He entered the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1990, took his perpetual vows in 1997, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1999.

Fr. Small was the U.S. bishops’ policy adviser for international economic development from 2004 to 2009, and later served as national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the U.S.

In an extensive email interview with The Pillar, he discussed the commission’s turbulent history, its new iteration, and why the global Church continues to struggle to address abuse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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You were named secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in June 2021. What is the commission for?

Is it a think tank, a policy-making body, or perhaps a panel of experts who speak and write about the issue?

I was asked to become part of the commission’s work as it underwent an important transition in both its nature and its mandate, framed in terms of its incorporation into the Roman Curia, the Church’s central governance structures.

As has happened with other former Vatican congregations and dicasteries, I was asked to undertake a review of the commission’s life and work and propose ways to make that work more effective, to evaluate the role of the members as a unique body of advisers to the Holy Father and make it more operational, all leading to some discernible evidence (in an annual report) that children are increasingly safer in the Church.

The focus on being able to point to independent evidence that the Church is doing a better job than previously has been a guiding light in this review process. Hence you will see the Holy Father’s call for an annual report on safeguarding policies and procedures to document these improvements (where they can be identified) and to point to the work that remains to be done.

Regarding its nature, the commission is to address the Church’s obligation to fix the problem of how it consistently and programmatically ensures the safety of children and vulnerable people. This originally took the form of advice to the Holy Father, something that was a source of dissatisfaction by members concerning the extent to which advice turned into changes in Church practice.

The new mandate is more of a sharing in the munus magisterii, a delegated exercise of the Petrine Ministry over those areas of the Church where the adequacy of child safeguarding policies and practices are in question or under review.

The commission, as part of the central governance of the curia, has a role analogous to other dicasteries, that of service to the local Church by building capacity on a given topic according to certain standards of behavior, in our case for the protection of children.

We can see this in the commission’s mandate to oversee — “sorvegliare” in the pope’s words — the effectiveness of guidelines (as mentioned in the new Vatican constitution Praedicate evangelium, 78.2) and the functioning of stable and publicly accessible reporting mechanisms for abuse accusations (as set out in the 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, Article 2).

This should flow into an annual report to the pope from the commission (as he requested at an audience with commission members on April 29). A great novelty will be the exercise of the potestas [power or faculty] proper to the Petrine office and how it shares in the pope’s solicitude for the entire Church.

What does it mean that you were appointed “pro tempore”?

I can only explain it in terms of the plain reading: that it is a temporary provision made by the Holy Father, pending an appointment of a secretary on a more definitive basis.

My time so far has spanned the publication of the new apostolic constitution Praedicate evangelium, which aligns the leadership of the commission with similar roles within the Curia in section 78.4. In this way, the role of president and secretary appointed by the Holy Father is both identified and yet differentiated from the role of member of the commission. This is a significant change. The president and secretary of the former commission were also members of the commission based on the previous statutes. Incorporated into the curia, president and secretary are analogous to the roles occupied by prefects/presidents and secretaries more generally in dicasteries and elsewhere.

The question of the statutes is relevant here. Promulgated after much internal discussion in 2015, they were approved ad experimentum [on an experimental basis] for a period of three years. However, a significant prospect faced the new commission at the time of the expiration of the statutes in 2018, namely, the commission’s inclusion into the Roman Curia and its new mandate throughout the Church. There might have been some who thought the commission might be dissolved or its function be adopted by another dicastery, e.g. Laity.

However, under the direction of its president [Cardinal Seán O’Malley] and the C9 [the pope’s Council of Cardinals], the commission’s status was not only preserved in an autonomous way by the Holy Father in the new apostolic constitution but it was also given both a clear and substantial mandate, one involving the previous competence of the DDF [Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith] and the other involving the implementation of Vos estis.

This clarity of nature and mandate would need to be codified into a completely re-conceived set of statutes, something that began with the promulgation of the new apostolic constitution. Such statutes, while important, will derive their content and clarity from the mandate provided by the apostolic constitution and the audience of the Holy Father on April 29, something that was simply not present in the commission’s previous iterations.

At the same time, where other dicasteries have a majority of members who are curial cardinals, resident cardinals and bishops with only a small percentage of non-clerics, the commission reverses this custom and has a vast majority of lay people, where 50% of the members are women.

This model of governance, I believe, is a vital part of its contribution to the Church moving forward, one that need not strictly be limited to the area of child protection. I think that the times prompt us to find new and effective ways, respecting the Church’s structure, to have all the faithful share in the oversight of our common life, under the pastoral direction of the Successor of Peter.

Otherwise, we will fail to seize the moment that recent challenges are urging on us. And we can’t just invoke the role of the laity when we need to sort out our past financial problems, which seems to be a trend, or when we need to raise money to support the Church’s mission.

Nor can we rely on women in the Church when we need to fix problems that have largely been caused by men — and men who are clerics. It disturbs me when we talk about the important role of “competent lay women” in the context of solving problems created by male clerics. Yes, we need more participation of the faithful in an incisive way; more transparency in hiring and decision-making; more accountability for when things don’t go right. But we also need to grow organically and in a way that resists the temptation to offer quick fixes to problems that may require time and a collective effort as a Church, and not as an NGO.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Scott Maentz via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).


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What do you believe the commission achieved in the often turbulent period from its creation in 2014 to your arrival as secretary in 2021?

When I was head of the Propagation of the Faith, a job that Archbishop Fulton Sheen had from 1949 to 1966, I learned a lot of history from that period. It was a time of great optimism and growth, especially after World War II in the U.S.

During Sheen’s tenure as national director, the archbishop in Chicago was Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who in 1958 was called to Rome by Pope Pius XII and made prefect of Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

The cardinal’s cousin was the famous actor Elaine Stritch, which is noteworthy for two reasons. First, was her connection by marriage to the company that makes Bay’s English Muffins. I knew nothing of English muffins growing up in Liverpool, England, and only came to appreciate them in the fall of 1998 in my first American diner experience after coming to the U.S. as a deacon, completing my studies for the priesthood in CUA.

The second, and more to the point, is Elaine Stritch’s famous rendition of the song “I’m still here.” It’s an iconic song about the life of any actor or, indeed, of anyone tossed around by life, and subject to fortune and its sometimes outrageous slings and arrows.

And that’s what I can say about the achievement of the commission: It’s still here! That might not mean much to some, and its mere existence might bring little comfort to those whose abuse and wrongdoing the commission intended to address in a forthright way.

Indeed, that it is still around with few recognizable achievements and many voices of criticism, that its trajectory and contribution have been disappointing at best and tragically non-consequential at worst, was difficult to ignore during the review process that I undertook over the last year. Between success and failure, the truth, as in most cases, is somewhere in between.

However, I would argue that you can trace all the major systemic initiatives around the Church’s prevention and safeguarding agenda over the last 10 years to the input, recommendations, and insight of the pontifical commission and its staff.

From survivor advisory panels to the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi, creating disciplinary procedures to hold bishops accountable for suspected coverup or negligence in handling abuse cases; from the over 500 seminars and presentations on safeguarding undertaken by commission members to the hundreds of bishops interviewed during their ad limina visits on the adequacy of their prevention measures; from a commission toolkit that led to a near 100% compliance with the requirement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [now the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith] in 2011 for all dioceses and religious orders to draft safeguarding policies and procedures, to the publication of commission books and resource materials aimed at raising awareness and skills training in religious life, victim accompaniment and victim/survivor involvement in designing safeguarding structures throughout the Church.

Success has many parents and failure is an orphan, the most significant being the idea floated early in the commission’s life, to gather all the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to develop a collective action plan, something that eventually took place in Rome in February 2019.

With a problem so devastating and emotionally harmful as the sexual abuse of children in the Church, it is difficult to think of and celebrate “successes” as a commission, because any improvements, while necessary, pale in comparison to the harm done; namely the sins and crimes that have literally destroyed lives all over the world.

Compounding the harm, which not infrequently has led to addiction and suicide, marriage breakdown, and further abuse by victims themselves, is the fact that many victims/survivors were rejected in their suffering by the very Church that held itself out as a place of healing for those wounded by the world. However, rather than comfort the afflicted by sexual abuse by the Church, too often the Church continued to harm those afflicted by its own ministers with the evil of sexual abuse.

The commission suffered an early blow to its credibility when abuse survivor members resigned, saying the body was ineffective. Do you believe that the commission has addressed these criticisms and taken steps to reestablish its credibility among survivors?

As you will see, I think the commission has had many successes, despite comments to the contrary. But any true analysis must look at the expectation of those who convened the commission. I think it is both unfair and wrong to ask a body of people to help you, and then ask them to tell you what’s wrong and how you plan to fix it, and ask them to write their own statutes and bylaws, only to realize during the process that the expectations had not been clearly articulated and agreed from the beginning.

The vagueness of the competency of the commission hindered it from the beginning. For instance, early on some members thought, very reasonably, that their advice should be adopted and implemented by relevant Church personnel. Yet there was little indication (apart from presuppositions) that the commission was anything more than an advisory body to the pope, and presumably his key advisers, without executive or governance function.

This has largely been remedied with the new constitution and the papal audience of April, with enumerated and specific competencies and defined deliverables. But early on, in the midst of a raging and developing scandal of abuse and its mishandling, those asked to come and put out the fire, and stop other fires from starting were told — explicitly or implicitly — by those in Church executive leadership that their diagnosis was one opinion among many, and that remedies they recommended may also be lacking. Of course, this conversation rarely took place face-to-face, since this was (and is not) the collaborative function practiced by the curia.

Time has shown that the early commissioners were more right than wrong in their prescriptions of what needed fixing, especially around holding bishops and religious superiors accountable for negligence. But the approach, strategy, and personal relationships were hampered by a perceived lack of clarity on what the precise mandate was.

In a representative democracy, failure to act on a policy recommendation offered by a body like the commission (such as currently going on in France, focusing on abuse in the context of the family, a Royal Commission report such as in Australia on gambling or casinos, or something like the 9/11 Commission Report in the U.S.) would have consequences for public representatives at the ballot box. The Church has no such mechanism of accountability, or, at least, not one that is publicly accessible to impacted parties such as victims in criminal procedures, or the media.

It is important in moving forward to look back so as to learn how things became as intractable as they seemed, despite the good intentions of many of those involved. Perhaps some of these tensions were a necessary part of getting where we are today. Perhaps there was no other pathway than the one taken.

However, it’s not enough to achieve necessary reforms in the long run. It’s important to achieve them in as timely a way as possible and one that maximizes the benefits to those who need them most: the victims and survivors, and those spared the evil of sexual abuse because of the changes that have been made.

Building credibility, among other things, needs a track record; we need something objective to point to. Otherwise, we are left to subjective considerations. In a fraught and complex area like sexual abuse, opinions will differ widely and any recent report of scandal and coverup can have people throwing their hands in the conviction that nothing has changed for the better.

I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot has changed. That we know about these scandals, in some indicative way, shows they are not covered up as before, or not as easily as before. And while not a scientific judgment, I strongly doubt that abuse of a child could continue unchecked within the Church for months and years as happened in the past in a systematic way in places like North America, Western Europe, and Australia.

While a lot of work has been done particularly around the poor track record of dealing with abuse in North America, Western Europe, and Australia, such confidence cannot be affirmed regarding the situation in the Global South. To use a small indicator of behavior change, it is fair to say that it would be rare for a priest in the U.S. to get away with breaching safeguarding guidelines by, for instance, driving alone in a car with a minor for too long. Training and heightened expectations would raise red flags and an intervention would take place as a matter of course. But in the Global South?

What keeps me awake at night is the scenario of a teenage girl going on a youth retreat overnight in a country in the Global South without any of the protocols and protections around standards of professional behavior that we have come to take for granted in the U.S. and elsewhere. And I fear that whatever abuse that may currently be going on by clergy or other ministers in the Church — and we know far too much to be naïve about the presence of such abuse — it may go unchecked for quite some time unless we quickly ramp up our training and policy formation in the Global South.

That’s why the commission recently took major decisions to implement abuse prevention training across those parts of the world where resources and expertise are scarce. It’s not enough to train religious personnel in safeguarding if we don’t also provide the funding to ensure they can implement their knowledge in the local church context.

This is the goal of the Memorare Movement, a program devised by the commission and inspired by the mandate given to it by Pope Francis in April to implement the requirements of Vos estis’ Article 2, which, he acknowledged, remains largely non-implemented by presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences who met in 2019 and agreed to this plan of action.

Obligations on training and prevention are a good start. But unless we accompany people with shared resources, we’re failing in our duty as a whole Church. We were delighted with the initial commitment of the Italian bishops’ conference to support this work financially. Cardinal O’Malley intends to reach out to other bishops’ conferences around the world to request greater solidarity in the fight against sexual abuse.

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The new Vatican constitution Predicate Evangelium, published in March, decreed that the commission would be “established within the Dicastery” for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF). Who does the commission report to: the DDF or the pope?

In a fundamental way, the commission should report to victims/survivors about its work and what it has found and then to the entire Church.

One of the gaps in the past — and the commission recognizes this — is that the commission faced little consequence for its performance or lack thereof, which led to some of the doubts about its effectiveness. The annual report it will submit to the Holy Father should address a lack of transparency in its operation and accountability for what it recommends and what it carries out.

The spirit of your question is around who “controls,” or can direct, the work of the commission. The Holy Father has delegated responsibility for prevention and safeguarding in the Church to the president [Cardinal O’Malley] as laid out in Predicate evangelium, and the president answers directly to the pope.

The location of the commission within the DDF, albeit with its own separate governance structure, has major implications for the operation of both entities. Clearly, prevention and discipline are two sides of the same coin, and their lack of coordination was seen by the Holy Father as a structural deficiency in the Church’s fight against abuse. He has corrected that to some extent but asked that the commission and the DDF propose the best ways to make that work, something we have begun talking about.

Indeed, the entire commission met and was briefed by the leadership of the DDF during their recent plenary. There was a lot exchanged during the meeting and it promises to be an interesting and key set of relationships in the fight against sexual abuse of children in the Church. There is much more to be ironed out.

Addressing the commission in April, the pope asked for an annual “report on the Church’s initiatives for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults” that would serve as “a clear audit of our progress in this effort.” Why is the first report only likely to be ready in 2024?

The task of producing the kind of report envisaged by the pope is as massive as the Church itself. And we are starting with few institutional structures that might be readily invoked to help draft such a report, apart from the experience in the U.S. or parts of Europe. Plus, the commission is composed of part-time professionals who meet formally twice a year (which is still more than the members of most other dicasteries).

This is an ambitious project, made more challenging by the need to do it well because of its subject matter. Some might employ the oft-used analogy of trying to fix the plane while it’s flying. But there is little choice but to put all reasonable efforts behind it, aware that there is really nothing produced by the curia of similar scope and purpose.

The annual report will become the flywheel of the commission’s work. That is to say, it can become the point of contact and dialogue with the 114 bishops’ conferences, religious orders, and the Roman Curia that has responsibility for parts of the safeguarding agenda, not least of which is the DDF.

One can quickly get a sense of the challenges facing such a task, if it intends to be more than a catalog of the activities of the commission alone, which frankly would be of little use in being able to measure and bring a degree of confidence on the challenge to demonstrate that children are safe in the Church.

We already discussed the potential sections of a future report that I noticed [the Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau Chief] Cindy Wooden accurately describe from the meeting with journalists.

I estimate that the commission should be able to provide some degree of specificity in 2023 on what kinds of data would be needed to populate those sections and who would be responsible for providing that data and, just as important, how that data can legitimately be collected and presented.

But we are talking about an annual tool that will become the main touchstone for the Church’s combat in such a key area. We might make more progress than planned but it’s also important not to overpromise and under-deliver: victims/survivors have had about enough of that from the Church. I imagine it will take us a full year to activate the kinds of reporting mechanisms that will render the commission’s subsequent advice to the pope worthwhile.

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Pope Francis appointed 10 new members to the commission in September. Is the commission now adequately staffed and resourced for the tasks entrusted to it?

I think we have the members we need. Operating in regional groups, they will have the faculty to call on local consultants depending on the issues that they are dealing with, e.g., abuse of religious sisters in the Church, matters dealing with guideline implementation by bishops’ conferences, or the care of victims/survivors, or the ways in which accusations are brought forward and processed in canonical procedures. And we hope to provide some staff support for those regional groups that will remain in the regions.

In the commission offices in Rome, we have added several staff members with the aid of some grant support and the understanding of Fr. Guerrero, S.J., and the Secretariat for the Economy who oversees our budget. While budgets still seem very tight post-COVID, Fr. Guerrero and the Council for the Economy have recognized the need to increase spending on prevention efforts, which is a great boost to our work.

I am confident that we will be starting 2023 with similar budgetary and staffing resources as the Disciplinary Section of the DDF, which is a great leap forward. Prevention is as important as prosecution, or, as my grandmother would tell us, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

Fr. Andrew Small entered the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1990. Photo provided by Fr. Andrew Small, OMI.

Pope Francis issued the motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi in 2019. The norms, which entered into force on June 1 of that year, were “approved ad experimentum for three years.” Is Vos estis working?

Yes, it’s working. I think the biggest challenge to its effectiveness comes when someone asks how we know with some objectivity if Vos estis is working. And again, it’s hard to tell, leaving us to estimate the presence and number of cases, the precise procedures used, and the outcome of these processes and decisions on what is perhaps the most significant tool of accountability, and therefore discipline, for negligence in recent memory.

While we have some sense of bishops who have been sanctioned, or at least investigated, I have no visibility on the number of ordinaries or major superiors in religious life who have been subject to a Vos estis accusation. Are we to believe that there are no cases of negligence in religious life? Are we to believe that there aren’t more cases of negligent bishops who quietly stepped down?

Rather than lurching from case to case, scandal to scandal, our hope is that an annual report would surface the functioning or not of Vos estis, to see where changes should be made across the board. This would help not only victims/survivors but those who are the object of the law’s purview: leadership in the Church.

As a former law professor, I realize that it’s a fundamental legal axiom that a lack of clarity in the law’s applicability and actual application is a deficiency in the legal system that can corrode the legitimacy of the entire system of justice. If a bishop is sanctioned and no one knows why, then how can other bishops know what actionable behavior is?

In addition, how might victims/survivors be confident that justice has been done if no one can be sure of anything? Healing of those who have been harmed should absolutely be a concern of a justice system embedded in and operated by a Church.

I would just say that unless the Church moves in the direction of treating the misbehavior of its ministers more like the complaints procedures found in other professional associations, such as doctors or lawyers — whose wrongdoings may breach professional standards but which may not be actionable in civil criminal tribunals for whatever reason — then I think the current system will continue to be marred by opacity and delays that question the overall fairness and usability of the Church’s judicial process.

The three-year ad experimentum period ended on June 1, 2022. What can you tell us about the process for revising Vos estis?

Not very much since it doesn’t deal primarily with prevention and safeguarding training, policies, and procedures that are the purview of the commission. I hear talk that it has undergone a review within the curia (which the commission has only recently become a member of) and that it should be published soon. I am confident the mandate given to the commission by the Holy Father in Article 2 of Vos estis will be preserved. More than that, I can’t be helpful.

We’ve seen high-profile cases in which bishops appear to have been allowed to say they are resigning for health reasons when their departures are actually linked to abuse allegations. Without offering a judgment on individual past cases, can you say in general terms whether the practice of allowing bishops to resign without addressing abuse claims against them harms the Church’s credibility?

I think I addressed this above about the judicial system, particularly my comment about likening such sanctions to the disciplinary procedures of other groups of professionals, e.g. doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and the like.

Adding to what I said above (and not just making the following comment), I would say that the consequences of people losing office — which seems to be the main sanction apart from being expelled from ministry in some form or other (either formally or practically by not being given another assignment by the bishop) — does not admit of a one-size-fits-all strategy.

However, public education should be more substantial on the different scenarios and the values involved. If the state does not think it can prosecute a case because of some reason which is usually linked to difficulties of an evidentiary nature, why does the Church think it can do a better job than a state, notwithstanding all the resources that a state has for administering justice?

Clearly, decisions are made that remove bishops and priests from positions over the faithful. That the harm is avoided seems to be of central consideration. That the demands of justice and the assurance that wrongs have been righted in some way, especially for victims/survivors, also seems important and the Church needs to find better ways of honoring this important element of the communicability of justice.

Many victims say they want to make sure the person is no longer able to harm someone else. But they also rightly want and deserve an acknowledgment of the wrong that was done to them and that a penalty was paid. By omitting this aspect, the Church’s system of justice will lack an essential element in its own legitimation.

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In recent years, diocesan bishops, the Holy See, and Pope Francis have all emphasized that transparency is an element of ensuring a cultural change on safeguarding issues. Is transparency a necessary element of safeguarding practices? What does that mean for the Holy See?

The question of transparency has proliferated in all areas of public and private life recently. Some might argue that it is connected to the 24-hour news cycle and the digital culture. There may be some truth to that.

Pope Francis has warned about this toxic environment, where bias and personal agendas in public life can distort the search for truth. But there is no going back in terms of our modern digital culture and its life online.

The linkages with the reports of abuse and their processing by the Church are obvious to questions of transparency. But linked to this push for transparency is the question of legitimacy, which revolves around questions of trust. When trust breaks down, there is little that even full transparency or information openness can help with. There is something deeper that is wrong than disclosure of all the available information will satisfy.

Without being too dramatic, the crisis in question touches upon our ability to form and sustain communities built around common expectations and values. Ruptures in our ability to get along become the norm and are even exploited by our culture. Pope Francis has spoken about the relative comfort found in a polarized society, where compromise, empathy, and mutuality are disparaged.

Transparency claims by victims of abuse — or anyone, for that matter — point to a breakdown in trust, in institutions surely but also in one another and our ability to navigate the demands of human relationality.

Maybe nowhere is this lack of trust most evident than in those whose trust has been shattered by the evil of abuse. Regaining the control that was taken away from the abused person will require a high level of accompaniment by the institution in which this abuse took place. Such accompaniment will call for a more total level of disclosure than the Church is used to.

That the notion of the pontifical secret is still valid despite the modification made in relation to abuse cases is a sign of how the Church’s internal procedures can appear at odds with the needs of those impacted by abuse.

The U.S. state of Florida is known as the Sunshine State not principally because of its weather but because of its transparency laws concerning access to information in state government. Sunshine is considered the best disinfectant in this sense, especially when seeking to combat the distortions that come about in institutions when information is tightly held or rationed by the few and the powerful.

The Holy See has been criticized for conducting Vos estis investigations in secret, usually without acknowledging whether a particular bishop is actually under investigation. Is there a general reason — or a policy reason — why investigations usually take place confidentially, or at least without official acknowledgment?

These are good points and important ones that need to be addressed. And it is my hope the commission can address them in a coherent way with interested parties. The commission’s new structure allows for this kind of “think tank” approach to solving thorny problems that require a more considered response to questions that impact several parts of the Church’s administration.

But interested parties need to agree on what might be broken and in need of repair in terms of Vos estis. It’s not always the best approach to propose fixing a problem that the person in question doesn’t consider a problem. Confidentiality should not be seen as a criticism, however, unless its use serves to detract from the overall administration of justice.

My hope is that we can find something akin to what in most civil jurisdictions would be a law commission. Since the Church is not a democracy, its principles of governance are particular to its founding and its history, which in theological terms involve its understanding of itself as a Church or rather its ecclesiology. While not democratically constituted, the Church still prizes principles of mutuality, subsidiarity, the sense of the faithful, and the legitimacy of its governance, free from arbitrariness and caprice — all values that are consistent with a natural law approach.

In many disciplinary or prosecutorial processes, the confidential actions of the prosecutor or investigator can be justified on the principle of innocence until proven guilty. People have a right to their good reputations unless there are sufficient reasons giving established bodies to judge on the reputation of others.

The Church should be no different in this regard, notwithstanding theological principles of mercy and forgiveness. For this reason, an opaque system of justice covering the gamut from investigations to the legal reasoning behind the way cases are decided seems increasingly unjustifiable, given the frequency and the consequences in the public realm of the Church’s investigative and judicial actions.

It is common for bishops to argue that any accusation that is made public around the behavior of one of their priests is tantamount to a guilty verdict, even before due process has begun.

But we’ve also seen developments where the outcome of a Church investigation has led to the return of the priest to ministry after an accusation has been made and the outcome has led to no disciplinary action. The more these investigations are carried out in a professional way, with appropriate public disclosures that are based on clearly understood and publicly available policies and procedures, the better the entire community will be in feeling emboldened in ridding wrongdoing from within its ranks.

Again, this comes down to trust in the Church’s system of governance. Cardinal O’Malley warns bishops visiting Rome on their ad limina visits about the dangers of employing ad hoc or improvised policies and procedures. Bishops must resist the temptation to trust too quickly in their own “wisdom” to solve problems and rather should rely more often on stable, publicly accountable policies and procedures that are overseen by competent and trained people, including members of the laity.

One wonders whether the public scrutiny of accusations that lies at the heart of the admittedly confidential grand jury system might provide a remedy to the current Church system that seems to suffer from the dual threat of being overwhelmed by the volume of cases and a lack of public confidence in the administration of justice.

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There are bishops and priests who say their right of defense is not protected in the current penal policies surrounding the investigation of safeguarding issues. Is the right of defense embedded in Vatican policies? Does it need to be strengthened?

A recent major survey out of the U.S. clearly shows the anxiety, if not anger, among large segments of the priesthood around the impact on priestly life of the way abuse allegations have been handled by bishops. What seems clear is that it only takes a few difficult situations to contaminate the entire morale of the priesthood.

Maybe this drop in morale was inevitable and a necessary phase in addressing the culture of impunity and coverup. However, to the extent that such anxiety has impacted seminary life and even those considering a vocation only compounds the situation for administrators.

At the same time, having priests pause and fear the consequences of bad behavior is not something that should be avoided at all costs. Creating a culture and environment where the reasons for our separation of duties, lines of accountability, reporting, and the publication of outcomes seems the only feasible way forward not only in preventing sexual abuse, but in creating a working context in ministry that maximizes quality of life and effectiveness of pastoral service.

Unless bishops work in a mutual and collaborative way, particularly with their priests, in creating accountability structures around acceptable professional standards for ministers in the Church, I fear the relationship between bishops and priests may suffer from increased toxicity and functionalism that ultimately damages the entire pastoral context.

Such a toxic environment is, if it needs saying, healthy for no one. The answer is not to blame victims/survivors or their advocates, the media, or other commentators. The answer is to produce a whole-of-Church approach where all those involved, but most especially victims, can develop an acceptable way forward.

Bishops and priests preach weekly on the importance of unity and of figuring things out together, especially to churches full of married couples. Now more than ever they need to practice what they preach.

What, in your view, is the most misunderstood aspect of the commission’s work?

It’s true that in most areas of life, but especially in law enforcement, it is always more difficult to show what you prevented from happening than what you remedied by disciplining the wrongdoer. The scandalous and heinous cases of abuse will always get our attention much more than the virtuous behavior of priests ministering selflessly for the broken. Of course, we don’t need to worry too much about those who are cared for.

The commission’s successes are, of their nature, difficult to see and quantify. But just as subtly are the commission’s recommendations for a radical refocusing of the Church’s attention. These recommendations have sometimes been drowned out by the problems the commission sought to fix.

I often think of the parable of the wine and the wineskins. However you look at it, Jesus seems to be saying that the new wine will break the old skins if we are not careful and that sometimes we need a root and branch reconfiguration of some areas of our life when circumstances warrant.

Tinkering around the edges to solve the abuse crisis, just like being in denial, won’t get us where we need to be and the commission has been saying this from the beginning, long before the renewal discussed by the synodal process came into focus.

Perhaps the heart of the Church’s renewal can be found in the practical and theological way the Church faces and embraces the demands brought on by the sexual abuse of children in the Church.

Maybe our canonical wineskins and our way of doing things are just not fit for the purpose of facing the Church’s experience of sexual abuse of children, let alone the other areas of breach of trust common to all in professional life: teachers, lawyers, counselors, and so on.

The promises attached to the Church’s renewal seem to be on painful, if not daily, display in the evolving abuse crisis: the role of authority and its distortion; human relationality based on genuine mutuality and service; the rights and dignity of all; the need for universal professional standards regardless of social status and religious state; reckoning with a past whose consequences are ever-present; dialogue that is inclusive and that leads to participation by recognizing the harm done to people and the concrete steps intended to remedy wrongdoing; an intentional self-emptying of the Church’s prestige and power in favor of those who have been harmed; and a rejection of the presumption of incorrigibility by religious leadership.

Our faith starts with a creed, a personal commitment, in a sense. It is supremely personal since it focuses on the personhood of God, of Jesus as the Word made flesh who came close to us, turning water into wine, mourning into dancing, death into life. God’s presence became real, and therein made our lives real, perhaps more real than they sometimes seem.

At the level of the struggling believer, the jaded victim/survivor, the former Catholic, the disillusioned catechist, the burned-out priest or the hapless bishop, there might be in the whole sexual abuse crisis something real about our common life and its meaning that is unfolding in all its calvary-like ways.

Is there a way of looking at a church in ruins and saying “It is the Lord!”?


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