Synod Response to Sex Abuse Scandal Falls Short

More than 250 bishops from around the world came together at the Vatican from October 3-28 for the XV Ordinary Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.

Also invited to participate were 30 young people, chosen (one assumes) for their engagement with the faith, representatives of both male and female religious orders and laity. Although permitted to take part in the discussions, none of these participants would be permitted to vote on the final document issued by the gathering, a privilege reserved for ordained men. Or rather, a privilege that was reserved for ordained men until 2015, when one religious brother (a non-ordained man) was given permission to vote. This year, according to an online petition in support of votes for women, that total was doubled: “two non-ordained male religious superiors have permission to vote.


And yet, one of the strongest messages coming from the synod was a call for the inclusion of women in ecclesiastical decision-making, which the final, 60-page document calls “a duty of justice” that requires a “courageous cultural conversion.” (!)

The final document went so far as to state that the lack of “women’s voices and points of view impoverishes discussion.” And although there was no mention of ordaining women either to the priesthood or to the diaconate, it was recommended that everyone should be made aware “of the urgency of an inescapable change.” (Or as protesters at an October 3 rally near St. Peter’s Square organized by the Women’s Ordination Conference put it: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? More than half the church!”) Catholics have been well aware of this fact for quite a long time, although any real movement to end the discrimination against women has long been met with, to put it mildly, indifference on the part of the hierarchy.

But could women’s participation in decision-making be the salvation of a church “shaken to its core by the horror of the sexual abuse scandal? A church in which male clergy involved in a culture of pedophilia continue to make headlines, and face wide-reaching investigations? I’ve always believed married men would be chosen as candidates for priesthood before women would receive any consideration, especially since married Anglican and Episcopalian clergy have been welcomed into the Catholic church. The revival of the male diaconate in our own diocese, involving married men, also seems to put the kibosh on any chance for a female diaconate, despite a committee created at least two years ago by the Vatican to examine the history of women deacons in the church. Said committee seems to have disappeared into the Vatican ether, even as participants in the latest synod decry the lack of feminine involvement in church matters.


And speaking of the sexual abuse scandal, it actually received little attention at the synod, and references to it in the final document also reflected a retreat, with the church’s previous declaration of “zero tolerance” for abuse modified to a “firm commitment for the adoption of rigorous measures of prevention” of abuse.

The final text admits (Surprise!) that “revelations of abuse have become a serious obstacle to the fulfillment of the church’s mission, and admits that many abuse cases have been handled in a manner lacking responsibility and transparency.”

Pope Francis preaches the homily during the final Mass of the Synod on Youth (Vatican Media)

Pope Francis preaches the homily during the final Mass of the Synod on Youth (Vatican Media)

Interestingly, French bishops holding their annual meeting in Lourdes on 3 November 2018 announced they would establish an “independent” commission to investigate sexual abuse of minors going back to 1950, and that the commission’s report would be made public. In a message to the bishops, Pope Francis urged them to maintain “zero tolerance” against such abuse, a rebuke, one would imagine, to those who changed the wording in the final synod document.

References to the abuse scandal raises other questions for me, given that even when clergy were shunted from one parish to another because of sexual abuse (a fact that became known often without actual claims being made against them, indicating that other clergy and bishops were definitely in the know as to what was happening), there were very few restrictions placed upon them. Usually, they arrived in a new parish with no warning to parishioners or parish councils as to why they had been removed from their last posting. What I find truly despicable is that they were permitted to take up their new positions and were allowed to preside at the Eucharist and, with the same hands that had sexually assaulted young, innocent parishioners, change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

The church has that covered, it turns out as, according to the latest version of the Catholic Catechism, it is not the priest, but Christ himself, who brings about the change, called transubstantiation. If the priest happens to be unworthy because of sins he may have committed, the act of transubstantiation occurs anyway. So pedophilia be damned (or not), because a priest receives “an indelible spiritual character” at the time of ordination which can’t “be repeated or conferred temporarily” and although he may be forbidden for a “just reason” from exercising his “various obligations and functions,” he remains a priest forever, free to celebrate Eucharist. The bishops who participated in the abuse by shunting guilty clergy from one parish to another, could, like the clergy themselves, confess their nefarious deeds to another cleric and move on with their lives while their victims’ lives were often damaged beyond repair. Contrast that with the punishment handed out to, for example, a lay Catholic who divorced and remarried without benefit of an annulment. For that truly heinous sin, such a person would be deprived of the Eucharist.


Back to the final synod document, which made no apology for the abuse scandal and actually reduced the five paragraphs that referenced it in the draft document to three. Some observers suggest this failure to come to grips with the issue increases the importance of an episcopal conference scheduled for February 2019 at which the abuse scandal is to be discussed.

Others have offered some rather drastic suggestions for action on the issue.

Confessional in Our Lady of the Nativity Church, Magny-en-Vexin, France. (Photo by P.poschadel [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons)

Confessional in Our Lady of the Nativity Church, Magny-en-Vexin, France. (Photo by P.poschadel, GFDL, from Wikimedia Commons)

One of these is the Rev. James E. Connell, a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, canon lawyer and member of Catholic Whistleblowers (a group priests and nuns who say the Roman Catholic church is still protecting sexual predators). Connell argued recently in the National Catholic Reporter that it’s time for the Pope, who has the authority, to “modify the Catholic church’s seal of confession.”

Connell believes this would lead to a cleric guilty of abuse being reported based on his confession and brought to justice. I believe this idea would require some very serious study before anyone, let alone the Pope, would consider exercising his authority to lift the secrecy of the confessional. But Connell’s argument is interesting. He says that while Catholic church law “unconditionally forbids any priest from betraying a penitent, for any reason whatsoever,” and that such law has been in place “at least” since the 12th century, it hasn’t always been the case:

Within Canon 1447 of the Catechism of the Catholic church we read: “During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation.”

Clearly, the church’s use of public penances for centuries hardly endorses a seal of confession.

But that’s an issue for another day.


In the meantime, Pope Francis is, regrettably, on record accusing the victims of “Chile’s most notorious pedophile,” the Rev. Fernando Karadima, of “slander” for claiming Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up Karadima’s crimes. As The Guardian reported, the Pope has said that until he sees proof, such accusations are “all calumny.”

Protesters gather outside the hotel in Baltimore where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was meeting during its fall general assembly. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

Protesters gather outside the hotel in Baltimore where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was meeting during its fall general assembly. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register) See ABUSE-BISHOPS-PROTESTERS Nov. 12, 2018.

On the other hand, he has called all bishops, active as well as retired, to that conference in February during which the abuse scandal is to be discussed at length. And at the Pope’s behest, US bishops will hold their own retreat in Chicago in January.

Last week, the editorial staff of the National Catholic Reporter published an “Open letter to the US Catholic bishops” with a simple message: “It’s over.”

From fable to sacred text, we know how this goes. The point is reached where all realize the king wears no clothes, the righteous accusers read the writing in the sand and fade away, the religious authorities receive the Master’s most stinging rebukes. As a class of religious rulers, the loudest among you have become quite good at applying the law and claiming divine authority in marginalizing those who transgress the statutes. The prolonged abuse scandal would suggest, however, that you’ve not done very well taking stock of yourselves.

The authors even call out John Paul II:

The worst of [the abuse] occurred during the pontificate of the hastily sainted John Paul II, a giant on the world stage, but a pastor who let wolves roam his own flock.

Then suggested that in the months following the bishops’ January retreat:

We’ll know whether you’ve really hit bottom and are on the mend with the best interests of the community at heart or whether you’re still in search of cheap grace and the easy way out.

But the “bombshell” dropped on US Catholic bishops attending their annual conference in Baltimore this past Monday raises doubts about this mending process: the Holy See informed them not to vote “on any concrete actions concerning the sex abuse crisis.” Instead, they were to vote on “a new code of conduct” for bishops and “the creation of a special commission to review complaints made against bishops.”

With Catholics protesting outside the US bishops’ Baltimore meeting, with bishops themselves confused by the Vatican’s actions and with suggestions of a possible schism surfacing, will the bishops finally realize this problem is not going away, despite at least 35 years of attempting to cover it up? When the bishops finally admit the existence of a clerical culture of abuse and their role in it — which has been to protect themselves and the church, rather than the victims of sexual predators — it will be the first step toward a solution and it can’t come too soon.

Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.






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