Little progress since Vatican's sexual abuse summit, say activists

Angela Giuffrida in Rome
Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/AP

The Vatican has done little to seriously address the problem of clerical sexual abuse one year on from an unprecedented summit at which bishops and cardinals heard the testimony of victims, activists have said.

Pope Francis closed the four-day summit last February promising that the Catholic church would “spare no effort” to bring to justice paedophile priests and the bishops who covered up their crimes, but so far he has failed to implement crucial reforms to canon law that would allow that to happen.

About 190 bishops and cardinals attended the summit, where they heard traumatic testimony from people who had been raped and molested by priests, and about the indifference that the Catholic church’s hierarchy had shown towards them.

Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of Bishop Accountability, which tracks clergy sexual abuse cases, said that while the summit did a tremendous amount of good by raising the profile of the issue, increasing media coverage of cases and encouraging victims to come forward, it had not led to a “zero-tolerance” policy.

“By that I mean ‘one strike and you’re out’ for abusers, at least out of the ministry, and ‘one strike and you’re out’ for enablers,” Doyle said on the sidelines of a press conference in Rome on Monday.

Three months after the summit, the Vatican established procedures for every diocese to report allegations of abuse and foster accountability for the actions of bishops and cardinals. In December, Francis announced that the rule of “pontifical secrecy” would be abolished in an effort to improve transparency in sexual abuse cases.

While these significant steps prompted changes in some Catholic countries, in others there has been no impact at all. “Looking at the dioceses, parishes and episcopal conferences in seven of the largest Catholic countries in the world, we’re finding mixed results,” Doyle said.

“But what they all have in common is a sobering verdict on the summit, which is that it is still entirely possible today, as it was a year ago, for a bishop to knowingly keep an abuser in ministry or return him to ministry, and for neither one of them to suffer a consequence under canon law.”

In terms of the positive impact of the summit, Bishops Accountability found that 4,500 victims of clerical sexual abuse in France had come forward over the past year, while public cases in Spain had surged by 50% thanks to media investigations.

Also in France, bishops agreed to compensate victims, but there was dismay in January when the country’s top cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, had a conviction for covering up the sexual abuse of children overturned.

In Italy, Giovanni Nerbini, the bishop of Prato, became the first bishop in the country to report alleged cases of clerical sexual abuse to the police. But in both Spain and Italy, a “concordat” between the Vatican and the state means that bishops can refuse to testify in court.