Pope Francis called for an “all-out battle” against child abuse this weekend at the end of a four-day summit that brought bishops and other church leaders from around the world to the Vatican.
The meeting, focused on clergy sex abuse, came six months after a Pennsylvania grand jury last year detailed accusations over a span of several decades against 300 priests in six diocese across the state.
As the summit drew to a close, Catholics in the Pittsburgh suburb of Churchill attended Mass at St. John Fisher Parish.
The Rev. Frank Almade, a priest for 40 years, said after the service that he knew several of the clergy members named in the report.
“It hits me, and hits my generation really hard,” he said.
In some parts of the world, bishops are skeptical that abuse has happened in their dioceses, and they have not always responded adequately.
Clergy here hope the summit will change that.
“It is an awareness at the highest level of our Church and the heads of bishops conferences around the world that they go back to their areas, wherever they may be, and say, ‘Brothers and sisters, this is a real problem that we have to address,’” Almade said.
At the summit, victims, lay people and church leaders railed against the Catholic Church for times it has hidden crimes and silenced victims.
Almade said it’s not just their voices that might change minds.
“It’s probably the quiet conversations that are happening in the small groups around the table, in the coffee bars and among the bishops and maybe others going out to dinner and talking about this,” he said.
Still, the summit left some Pittsburgh-area Catholics like Ryan O’Connor wanting more action.
“I had a lot of hope,” he said. “The one thing that could never be taken away was hope.”
O’Connor was 9 years old when he said his parish priest first abused him. He’s 46 now, still a practicing Catholic.
He pointed out the crucifix hanging on the wall of his Penn Hills home.
“Sometimes when you need a reminder, you look up and there he [Jesus] is, always knowing that he’s got my back,” O’Connor said.
He said the summit brought more of the same rhetoric survivors have heard for years.
“Frankly, we’ve had enough of talk,” he said. “We want action. We want true accountability.”
For example, he said, the church could support efforts to change laws, like extending statutes of limitations for sexual abuse. It can take decades for abuse victims to come forward, if they ever do.
“The perception of the church, I believe, will change greatly if they allow us to stand in front of our perpetrators and truly, truly take our lives back,” he said.
O’Connor also pointed to Vatican II, a series of meetings in the 1960s that resulted in major changes to the church, including allowing Mass to be delivered in languages other than the traditional Latin.
“Why don’t you call Vatican III to change your image?” he said. “That would be the real action.”
O’Connor said he thinks that would convince some Catholics who have left the church come back, as it would help restore the church’s credibility.
The summit ended with no concrete plan for the Church’s next steps, though clergy who attended the summit were asked by the Vatican to consider 21 “points of reflection.”
“I think they were good,” said Thomas Michael, a 22-year-old Catholic and a Carnegie Mellon University student who wants to pursue a career in teaching the philosophy of religion.
But, he said, they covered a lot of procedures the Church already has in place. Among other suggestions, they included having child sex abuse experts listen to victims, informing law enforcement of credible allegations and increasing education within the Church about abuse.
Some of those policies do exist within the Church -- at least within the United States today -- though they were not always common in past decades when much of the reported abuse took place. And they are not necessarily followed in other parts of the world.
Michael also said the Church needs to identify and sanction clergy members involved in covering up crimes. At the summit, a cardinal admitted the church had destroyed some documents related to abuse.
“If this could ultimately lead up to a really big investigation, I think that would be phenomenal,” he said.
The summit focused largely on crimes against minors. Michael said it did not fully cover the entirety of the abuse problem. The pope recently defrocked a former cardinal after accusations that he abused seminarians.
“I was hoping they would talk more about that because that seems to be a big part of the sex abuse crisis, and it’s kind of this elephant in the room,” Michael said.
Meanwhile, Michael will continue to pray, for the victims, for the perpetrators and for Pope Francis to fix these problems.