Why the Synod of Bishops blinked on zero tolerance

zero tolerance

If you’re an American Catholic, or an Australian, Irish, German, Chilean, or from pretty much anyplace else scarred by clerical sexual abuse scandals, news that a global summit of Catholic bishops in 2018 could walk up to the brink of endorsing a “zero tolerance” policy, only to pull back at the last minute, may seem almost incomprehensible.

One key to understanding how it happened is grasping that many Catholic bishops don’t hail from such places – actually, a strong majority don’t – and they bring widely differing perspectives and sensitivities to the table.

Here’s the tick-tock of how we got here.

The Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment opened against the backdrop of a tumultuous series of new chapters in the abuse saga, including the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report; the resignation of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; a controversy in Australia over eroding the seal of the confessional; laicizations, bishops’ resignations and fresh revelations in Chile; and, of course, the infamous letter from Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò accusing Pope Francis of knowing about McCarrick and covering it up.

Two weeks before the synod opened, the Vatican announced that Francis would summon presidents of all the bishops’ conferences in the world to Rome to discuss child protection Feb. 21-24.

From day one, it seemed clear the synod wouldn’t duck and hide from what had happened. One of the most dramatic early moments came when Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Australia directly addressed the 36 young people who joined the bishops, apologizing for the failures of Church leadership.

Fisher confessed the “failure of too many bishops and others to respond appropriately when abuse was identified, and to do all in their power to keep you safe” as well as the “damage thus done to the Church’s credibility and to your trust.”

He drew sustained applause, and he was joined by several other prelates who engaged the issue both in floor speeches and in small group discussions.

It seemed there was momentum towards a strong statement from the body.

Flash forward to Tuesday, Oct. 23, when synod participants were presented with a draft version of the final document they would vote on Saturday, Oct. 27.

It contained five paragraphs on the abuse crisis, almost 700 words in all, including these key points:

  • “Many voices were raised to express pain and shame for these abuses and the incapacity to give adequate responses.”
  • “Abuses, in all their forms, represent today the principal obstacle to the exercise of mission.”
  • “Behind the spreading of a culture of abuse there’s a spiritual void that has to be faced with a decisive conversion of heart, mind and pastoral practices. Unfortunately, the Church has ended up in some ways assuming a style of the exercise of power that marks the history of the world, made up of violence and damages to little ones and the vulnerable.”
  • Referring to acts of abuse and cover-up as “these crimes, sins and omissions.”
  • Confirming the policy of ‘zero tolerance.’

On Wednesday and Thursday, bishops reacted to the draft on the synod floor, eventually offering around 340 proposed revisions, additions and deletions.

The section on abuse was one focus of the back-and-forth, with some prelates arguing that the draft gave too much attention to the scandals, which they styled as largely a Western phenomenon fairly remote from the concerns of other places.

On “zero tolerance,” some bishops complained that it’s a media buzzword meaning different things to different people, suggesting that it’s often repeated but unclear in terms of its precise implications.

Further, they argued, it would be inappropriate to commit the synod to any precise policy ahead of the pope’s February summit on the issue.

(In some ways that’s a curious objection, given that Francis himself repeatedly has endorsed “zero tolerance,” saying for instance in 2017 that the Church “irrevocably and at all levels seeks to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against sexual abuse of minors.”)

Although those points came from several African and Asian prelates, it wasn’t just the developing world. Continue reading

  • John L Allen is editor of Crux
  • Image: Salt and Light TV
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News category: Analysis and Comment.