The appointment of the Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, to a senior position in the Vatican to tackle clerical sexual abuse came the day after the United States’ bishops were asked by Rome to delay voting on new accountability procedures.
These two developments give us an insight into where the Pope and the Church globally have got to when addressing what has become Catholicism’s biggest crisis in 500 years.
Following the request to delay the voting on accountability measures for bishops, there was understandable frustration in the US over what appears to be the Vatican blocking reforms and an apparent lack of understanding from the Pope over the urgency for making bishops’ accountable.
But three points are worth bearing in mind.
First, Francis wants a “one-Church” approach to abuse which is coordinated globally. This is one of the driving factors behind the Holy See asking the US bishops gathered in Baltimore not to vote on a new code of conduct for their handling of abuse and proposals for a lay commission to investigate cases of episcopal misconduct until after the world's bishops meet early next year.
Rather than dragging his feet, the Pope’s naming of Archbishop Scicluna as adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body which oversees cases of priests accused of abusing minors, shows his seriousness in getting to grips with the abuse scandal worldwide. With his new position, Archbishop Scicluna is now effectively the point man for the Pope in handling cases.
A cheerful and no-nonsense straight-shooter, the archbishop has an unimpeachable record in combating abuse. He has also developed a reputation as being an “untier of knots” when it comes to scandals, shown recently with his investigation in Chile.
The Maltese prelate, who will divide his time between Rome and his leadership of the Church in Malta, served in the Roman Curia from 1995-2012 where he prosecuted clerical sexual abuse cases from across the world and investigated the likes of Fr Marcial Maciel, the well-connected founder of the Legionaries of Christ who was also an appalling abuser.
Crucially, he was involved in getting bishops conferences across the world to come up with robust safeguarding guidelines and changes to Canon Law such as making child pornography and abuse of vulnerable adults classified as offences.
These are the kind of institutional changes the Pope will be aiming to bring about following the summit next February with the presidents of the worlds bishops’ conferences, a gathering which Archbishop Scicluna is likely to play an important part in.
Second, making bishops accountable goes much deeper than passing new protocols and hits at the prime currency of Catholic life: the communion between the Pope and a bishop.
One of the reasons for the Holy See asking for the US bishops to hold back on their accountability measures were canonical concerns with the proposed code of conduct. Part of the sensitivity here is over the specific role the Pope has in oversight of the world’s hierarchy with the Successor of St Peter alone having the power to discipline or remove bishops.
Setting up internal Church structures that circumvent or impinge on the authority of the Pope in this area requires delicate handling given that in the Church’s law and theology the papacy is the final authority over the bishops.
This goes to the heart of the communion shared by the Pope and the bishops, the successor of the apostles in their local dioceses, the umbilical cord ensuring the universality of Catholicism. The communion between Rome and the US has come under particular strain following Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò's testimony calling for the Pope to resign over his handling of sexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. After his explosive claims were made public, 24 bishops in the US issued statements praising Archbishop Viganò, a former papal ambassador to Washington, but without much in the way of support for the Successor of St Peter.
At a more practical level, if the US bishops pushed forward with new accountability measures, they could have found Rome later ruling they were in breach of Canon Law, which would leave another embarrassing mess to fix. There is also little to be achieved if the western church can announce new policies in 2018 only for Africa and Asia to become embroiled in scandals a decade later.
The Pope’s February summit with the bishops is designed to address precisely this problem, and its worth noting that Rome only asked the US hierarchy to delay their voting until after this meeting.
During their Baltimore meeting, the bishops’ lay advisory panel on child protection laid out reforms including plans for accountability of bishops, while the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, urged the discussions on this topic to continue and for voting to take place in March. The delay does not prevent further action on this matter.
Third, the problem of handing abuse cannot be outsourced to local churches despite Francis’ call for a “cautious decentralisation” in the Church.
“We have learned we need a central authority,” Fr Hans Zollner, the Church’s leading authority on anti-abuse measures who sits on the pontifical commission for child protection, told me last year.
“Different countries and local churches need to support each other so that no one is doing something alone.”
Some argued the request for a delay by the Vatican runs counter to the Pope’s desire for “synodality,” a collective response to problems rather than relying on edicts from on high. But, as Francis has made clear in the past, “synodality” is a “walking together” that prevents one local church running ahead before the rest.
The larger challenge is how Rome communicates this position to the US and victims while showing an understanding of the urgency of the accountability question. What the Pope is unwilling to do, however, is let one local church make changes which impact everyone else in trying to get grips with a crisis that has mushroomed across the global Catholic world.