Updated: Feb 18, 2020
There are signs that Vatican officials preparing the February summit on sex abuse hope the event will launch a new role for Catholic laity.
That would be a significant development in a scandal that, as Pope Francis himself has said, has been perpetuated by clericalism.
At first glance, the Feb. 21-24 summit looks like another “bishops monitoring the bishops” event. But planners have quietly taken steps to involve lay experts, and are signaling a more open approach to lay authority and supervision when it comes to dealing with accusations of clerical sex abuse.
In a recent interview with America magazine, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the meeting’s organizers, said the need for transparency and accountability on sex abuse requires bishops to “empower the lay people”:
“We bishops need to approach the issue of the sexual abuse of minors together as churches, and we also need to adopt what Pope Francis is calling ‘a synodal approach,’ that is we cannot do it alone in our community, we need also to empower the lay people, the laity, in order to help us be good stewards.”
Scicluna repeated the point for emphasis: “Synodality means that we appreciate the different charisms and gifts of the laity, their expertise, and that we empower them to join bishops in the role of stewardship.”
As if to anticipate the objections of conservatives, the archbishop added: “It’s not a question of (the laity) having control over the hierarchy, it is the hierarchy empowering and facilitating the sharing of charisms which the Spirit also gives to the laity, because there are gifts there that will help issues of prevention and safeguarding that we need to bring on board, and we need to facilitate as bishops.”
What that means in terms of practical responsibility and authority remains to be seen. Pope Francis did name two Vatican lay women to help prepare the summit: Dr. Gabriella Gambino and Dr. Linda Ghisoni, both undersecretaries in the Vatican’s office for Laity, Family and Life.
A key question is whether the pope’s “synodality” vision will trump the more legalistic approach of Vatican canon lawyers when it comes to lay responsibility regarding bishops’ decision-making and accountability.
It was Archbishop Scicluna who, in an address to canon lawyers in 2013, pointed out that under church law bishops can lose their office for abuse or negligence in ministry, and in this sense are seen as accountable to their faithful.
Over the last year, “more involvement by the laity” has been a popular phrase in the church’s discussion of sexual abuse, and it’s come from all quarters – the pope, U.S. bishops, victims’ advocacy groups and leading Catholics. Now it needs to be translated into meaningful measures.