The Vatican announced Wednesday that it is convening a "worldwide synod" of the leaders of bishops' councils to address the child sex abuse crisis and discuss how the Church can better prevent incidents of child sexual abuse in the future.
The meeting is set to take place in February even though the scandal is roiling the American Church right now.
A spokesperson for the Holy See issued the call in a statement, Catholic News Agency reports, proclaiming that "The Holy Father Francis, hearing the Council of Cardinals, decided to convene a meeting with the Presidents of the Bishops Conferences of the Catholic Church on the theme of ‘protection of minors.’”
At a news conference held later Wednesday, another Vatican spokesperson clarified that the meeting would center on "prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults." The spokesperson did not mention "abuse of power."
The move was heralded in left-leaning Catholic press as "unprecedented" — a characteristic apparently evidenced by the fact that the Vatican admitted it did not know how many bishops' councils there actually are (there are 114, and 21 eastern-rite Orthodox synods, "Councils of Churches, and Assemblies of Ordinaries").
But there are already problems. For instance, the Vatican views bishops' councils, which aren't organized by the Holy See, as primarily pastoral bodies, not law enforcement bodies, that care for and handle the concerns of Catholics in their respective home countries. They hold little power, and the men of real concern — Cardinals and high-ranking Vatican officials — don't appear to be invited to the meeting.
The meeting also seems to miss the point. In the United States and Europe, the child sex abuse crisis is mostly contained, the after-effects of a lay investigative and consulting body convened after the Spotlight investigations in Boston were made public. The current crisis centers around the abuse of seminarians and young priests at the hands of powerful Cardinals like Theodore McCarrick, and cover-ups that seem to have the support and involvement of officials in the highest levels of the Vatican hierarchy (including the Pope himself).
Either the Vatican is totally in the dark about what's going on in the United States, or its being deliberately obtuse (or worse — it could be trying to recast the current scandals as an extension of earlier problems).
There are also no lay people involved and no victims have yet been invited to testify, though that may yet change.
The announcement seems to be the latest in a string of bizarre responses from the Vatican which has yet to address the central complaints leveled, at least partly, in a letter from Archbishop Maria Vigano weeks ago: that powerful clerics knew about McCarrick's abuse of seminarians, and that they either took impotent action, did nothing, or actively worked to protect McCarrick and restore him to his full role in the Vatican.
In the case of Pope Francis, the accusations are more dire: that he, knowing McCarrick's history, rehabilitated him to the level of senior adviser and would have allowed him to die a Cardinal in good standing if not for an enterprising Catholic News Agency investigation that revealed decades of misbehavior.
The conference is also the brainchild of the Pope's Council of Cardinals (or the C9, for the number of high-ranking officials involved in the meetings), the same body that said it would issue an official response to Archbishop Vigano's claims from the Vatican earlier this week.
Its worth noting that at least two (if not three) of the C9 are under scrutiny themselves. Cardinal Francisco Errazuriz Ossa is alleged to have mishandled sexual abuse allegations in his home state of Chile; Cardinal George Pell is on trial in Australia for the sexual abuse of minors (though at least two of the charges against him have been dropped so far); and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga just recently came under fire in his home state of Honduras for "appearing to have disregarded a wealth of evidence of homosexual misconduct" in Honduran seminaries.
The meeting is still five months away, which leaves plenty of time for improvement. The Vatican should take the time to pursue it.