The just-concluded Vatican summit on sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy yielded astoundingly little substantive change in how the world’s largest Christian denomination will hold itself accountable for past sins or ensure the safety of minors around the globe moving forward. However, there were some statements that emerged from the summit, as well as a lack of statements, that may signal a new approach to LGBTQI people.
One of the major outcomes of the summit was that it provided a global platform for abuse survivors, including Juan Carlos Cruz of Chile, who has often spoken about how his being gay was used to silence him when he tried to report the abuse. Other LGBTQI survivors have said they believe their abusers sensed their sexual orientation or gender identities, and manipulated their isolation, shame and confusion as part of the grooming process. While they got no immediate satisfaction from the summit, their stories have more of an opportunity to be heard and their experience validated after the summit in Rome.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, ultra-conservative Catholics, including some bishops and Cardinals, renewed their attempts to place the blame for the abuse crisis on gay priests. The Swiss group Pro Ecclesia, in conjunction with Virginia-based media outlet LifeSiteNews, even launched a global petition demanding that the gathered bishops “stop homosexual networks in the Catholic Church.” Despite this pressure, those leading the summit and those charged with articulating what was happening were clear and firm in denying a causal connection.
At a press conference in advance of the summit, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, one of four summit organizers, responded to a journalist’s question about the reality that there are more males than females among reported victims by acknowledging that this reality would be addressed. He was quick to add that “as professional organizations studied the causes and contexts, such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and also the Royal Commission’s report in Australia, [they] indicated that homosexuality in itself is not a cause. It is a matter, however, of opportunity and also a matter of poor training on the part of people.”
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s prosecutor on sexual abuse cases, took this line of thinking even further. At a press briefing on the first day of the summit, he was asked why there was no discussion of homosexuality on the meeting’s agenda. He said that both homosexuality and heterosexuality are “human conditions” and said that “they are not something that predisposes to sin.” Importantly for LGBTQI people, he added, “I would never dare to indicate a category as a category that has a tendency to sin.” This is a huge departure from official Vatican documents such as the 1986 letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons that said being gay, lesbian or bisexual was “a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.”
Finally, in Pope Francis’s speech at the end of the summit, he said sexual abuse “is always the result of abuse of power.” He directed the bishops to avoid “ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.” This language was heard by many as a clear rejection of scapegoating attempts.
While many Catholics, especially those directly impacted by clerical sex abuse and cover-ups — including LGBTQI survivors, victims, and family members — are rightly disappointed by the summit’s failure to adopt a global zero tolerance policy, establish universal accountability protocols, or direct all reports of sex abuse to be reported to civil authorities, the Vatican’s long overdue acknowledgement of the culture of clericalism and secrecy as root causes of this crisis has far-reaching implications.
It is this same culture that has shielded hypocritical church officials who label queer people as “disordered,” “threats to the family,” and “sowing confusion and self-doubt,” even as many of them are known to be gay. If grappling with clergy sex abuse and cover-up leads to more openness, honesty, transparency, and accountability within the institutional church, that could translate into new approaches to teachings and practices that impact LGBTQI people.
Such a shift would likely take years, if not decades, to be instituted globally, but we could start to experience regional or national changes much more quickly. Over time, this could impact social structures, laws, and cultural norms in many places around the world. This might seem an unexpected outcome of the recent summit, but it is potentially a promising one for our community.
MARIANNE DUDDY-BURKE is the executive director of Dignity USA.