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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.

  • John Thavis

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis’ love-hate relationship with social media was on display this month.

On Jan. 20, appearing before pilgrims at his weekly blessing, he tapped a tablet to launch a “Click to Pray” app that allows people to share prayer intentions and (virtually) pray with each other. The pope called social networks “a resource of our time” that gives people a way to “share values and projects.”

But a few days later, the 82-year-old pope sounded a different tune in his annual message for World Communications Day. He said social media too often tend to divide people and encourage a worrisome trend toward narcissism:

Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism.

It's the Catch-22 that many people, the famous and not-so-famous, experience when using social media: they see the negative effects of social networking, but in this day and age they feel obliged to have a presence on digital platforms.

To understand why the pope can’t even consider withdrawing from social media, read this story by Catholic News Service. It outlines the incredible digital reach enjoyed by Pope Francis:

According to Twipu, a site that tracks Twitter statistics, each of Pope Francis' tweets generates an average of 935 replies, 7,998 retweets and 36,750 likes.

In an early December article, the Twiplomacy website listed Pope Francis as No. 4 on the list of the "most followed world leaders on Instagram." He came behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and U.S. President Donald Trump.

More importantly from the point of view of his Communications Day focus on community, Pope Francis is also in fourth place on world leaders' Instagram interactions. Each photo or video posted by the Vatican, the site said, garners an average of 198,432 interactions.

Pope Francis is on Instagram here:

You'll find him on Twitter @Pontifex.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

The moderator of the Vatican’s upcoming summit on sex abuse has underlined several crucial themes for the four-day meeting, including the need for greater accountability and transparency by bishops.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the former Vatican spokesman tapped by Pope Francis to chair the Feb. 21-24 summit, said past cover-ups by church officials have been the cause of “evil and tragedy.”

He made the comments in an article published in late January by “La Civiltà Cattolica,” a Jesuit journal that reflects Vatican thinking.

Father Lombardi said it was not enough for bishops to put procedures in place and deal quietly with sexual abuse cases. They need to communicate openly and quickly with everyone involved, he said.

“Sincerity and honesty in communications, the commitment to facilitate access to information, and to welcome outside help to improve the protection of minors are obviously behaviors that go in the opposite direction to the tendency to hide and cover up,” he said.

“This was one of the causes of so much evil and tragedy in the past,” he said.

Father Lombardi said the church’s approach to abuse by clerics must include a change in outlook and attitude, and not only new procedures to deal with accused priests. In that regard, his article praised a document published by the bishops of Canada in 2018, titled “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse.”

Meanwhile, another organizer of the summit, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, said one expected outcome of the meeting will be establishment of a task force with teams of child protection experts working on every continent.

It would appear that the task force’s purpose will be to make sure that there is practical follow-up to the summit, especially in places where there has been reluctance to face the problem.

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