John Allen on why Bishops Rejected ‘Zero Tolerance’

A Synod of Catholic Bishops from around the world just ended on October 28. Its focus was on youth. While the main goal was to prevent Catholic youth from leaving the Church, the synod could hardly avoid the subject of child abuse. Many expected it to adopt a position of “zero tolerance,” a policy proclaimed by Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, and Pope John Paul II. It looked like a safe bet, a no-brainer. But the bishops failed to do so. John Allen, editor of CRUX, attempted to explain why bishops rejected a policy of “zero tolerance” (here).

John Allen listed a number of excuses. Even he didn’t seem to find any persuasive. Some, mainly Asian and African bishops, thought the abuse scandal was “largely a Western phenomenon,” and of insufficient general interest. Mr. Allen noted that “some of the Italians who played key roles in the synod, for instance, felt the same way.” That is, key players from the Vatican were unwilling to commit to zero tolerance.

Allen dismissed the idea that the abuse crisis was simply “a Western phenomenon”:

“It’s commonly said among people who’ve been around the block on the abuse scandals that it’s just a question of time until they erupt elsewhere. Some believe Italy will be the next shoe to drop, some Poland, some the Philippines, some a major African nation such as Nigeria, and others propose yet more possibilities.”

Mr. Allen said abuse scandals are universal because “both human nature and ecclesiastical culture are pretty much the same everywhere.” The old casuist threw in a red-herring about “human nature,” pretending that everyone rapes children. But no organization comes close to matching the Catholic Church for pederasty. Equally important, no organization systematically covers up these crimes like the Catholic Church. It is mind boggling that even after several decades, this problem is largely unchanged. Old Vatican hands calmly say “it’s just a question of time” before there is another “eruption.” It’s like Mt. Vesuvius. What can you do about it?

Mr. Allen noted that Pope Francis “repeatedly has endorsed ‘zero tolerance.’” He failed to note that Pope John Paul II established that policy back in the 1980s. That makes it all the more remarkable that the synod of bishops rejected it. The fact that key Italian bishops fought against it is particularly revealing. If Pope Francis was serious about zero tolerance, all the bishops would sign up, and the Italian bishops would be first in line. For the Pope, zero-tolerance is just PR, like praying for the victims of a natural disaster.

After decades, the Church is still unwilling to make any substantive changes to address their abuse problem. Adding zero tolerance to the party platform is about the smallest gesture imaginable, yet the Church refuses to even take that step. It is hard to overestimate the deviance of this organization.


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