Banking on the Pope’s high risk strategy paying off

Banking on the Pope’s high risk strategy paying off
Francis is gambling with bishops’ conferences, but it’s probably the only card he has, writes Michael Kelly


Depending on where you stand on Pope Francis, his decision to call a summit of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences is either courageous or too little too late. It’s certainly unprecedented and the February meeting of the presidents of national assemblies of bishops shows how seriously Rome is taking the current crisis. It deserves a chance, but it’s a high-risk strategy that could end in failure. Bishops’ conference have often shown themselves to be little more than average when it comes to effectiveness.

Ever since his election five years ago, Francis has indicated that he wants to give greater authority to the conferences. His two immediate predecessors St John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been less enthusiastic about the bodies. The Argentine Pontiff on the other hand had an extremely positive experience of the working of the hierarchy in his native country and the supranational CELAM across Latin America. That body’s Aparecida Document has served somewhat as a blueprint for the Francis Pontificate.


In choosing the presidents of the bishops’ conferences, the Pope has ensured that he will have a representative from every country at a senior level and also deflected criticism that the body was hand-picked by Francis to give him the outcome he wants.

The first item on the agenda for the Rome summit of bishops will be ensuring that the issue of clerical sexual abuse and the appropriate response is viewed with sufficient seriousness. The Pope will need to cut across stereotypes and prejudices articulated by many prelates in developing countries that this is a Western problem or even just an English-speaking problem.

While Churchmen have often sympathised with their confreres from Ireland and the United States over the scandals, few have been willing to look at their own secret archives. Recent reports from Chile, Germany and the Netherlands, to reference just a few countries, reveal that the abuse crisis is far from an English-speaking problem. One can only assume that in parts of the world where there is not heightened awareness of abuse, it remains a hidden problem.

Francis will need to underline the fact that whether bishops believe abuse to be a problem in their culture or not, they must adopt watertight norms that will make zero tolerance and co-operation with the civil authorities the two gold standards. This will ensure that “we didn’t know” as an excuse will be consigned to the history books.

Francis will also want to outline his plan to ensure that those in senior positions who are shown to have covered up abuse will be punished, including losing their position if their failing warrants this.

Quite apart from the issue of abuse, the Pope will need to ensure that the bishops’ conferences are up to what he asks of them. Some view the Church like a multinational corporation with the Pope as CEO. In actual fact, the Pope is powerless unless the bishops work with him.

In 2011, Benedict XVI ordered every national conference of bishops in the world to draw up abuse guidelines. He set them a deadline of a year. The deadline came and went and the Vatican was forced to admit that just over half of bishops’ conferences responded. Few African countries replied, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged. What is to stop bishops leaving the Rome meeting in February and doing nothing at all?

There’s also the fact that each bishops’ conference President is really only a chair rather than a superior of other bishops. Former Bishop of Cloyne John Magee, for example, was able to flout nationally-agreed guidelines. He was eventually forced from office after an independent audit found procedures in his diocese for handling abuse “inadequate and in some respects dangerous”. Despite the fact that his episcopal colleagues were furious with him, they were powerless to act against him. Only Rome has authority over bishops.

Progressive-minded Catholics have tended to grumble that Rome has emasculated bishops’ conferences. More conservative-minded Catholics point to obvious deficiencies in the current model. Much is made, for example, of Rome’s interventions when it comes to controversial clerics like Redemptorist Tony Flannery. “Why,” it is often asked, “is Rome interfering?”

But, it’s precisely because local bishops’ conferences often ignore controversies that Rome feels the need to become involved.

Francis’ summoning of the bishops is certainly a gamble. He should ensure that representatives from countries like Ireland, the United States and Great Britain are to the fore.

Men like Archbishop Eamon Martin and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster need to impress upon their episcopal colleagues the importance of stringent guidelines. They need to warn them that sooner rather than later, the issue of abuse will rear its ugly head if it hasn’t already. They need to tell of the devastation that the crisis has wrought on the lives of those affected.

Delegates at the summit also need to know the huge effect that the Church’s failures in this regard have had on the ability to witness to the Gospel. In his 2010 letter to Irish Catholics Benedict XVI reflected on the fact that the cover-up of abuse in Ireland “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”.

It is a cancer that will wreak havoc in every corner of the Church. Francis must keep this at the fore of his mind and warn bishops that doing nothing is not an option. In reaching out to the bishops’ conferences, he’s taking a gamble. But it’s the only card he’s got, and his reputation and that of his Papacy rests on how he takes control on this issue.