Synod Fathers Reject ‘Zero Tolerance’ Language on Sex Abuse

by Christine Niles  •  •  November 3, 2018   

Final synod document opts for softer wording

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Reasons given for dropping the phrase "zero tolerance" from the final Youth Synod document point to the growing perception that Church leaders seem more willing to tolerate sexual predation, as long as it doesn't involve minors.

A draft version of the final document submitted Oct. 23 included the phrase "zero tolerance" for sex abuse, described as "crimes, sins and omissions." Synod fathers responded with multiple proposed revisions, a number arguing against the "zero tolerance" language.

Church leaders seem more willing to tolerate sexual predation, as long as it doesn't involve minors.

Prelates offered different arguments for dropping the wording, e.g., it has no clear meaning as far as application, meaning various things to various people; some argued sex abuse was primarily a Western phenomenon and not a major concern of African or Asian bishops.

But one cardinal on the drafting committee proffered a significant reason the language was dropped.

According to Mexico's Cdl. Carlos Aguiar Retes, the phrase "zero tolerance" was removed because it applies to abuse of minors, while the Youth Synod focused on adults aged 18–30. Retes added that the synod document also included other types of abuse for which "zero tolerance" language would not apply.

Catholics have already noted with frustration that the bishops and Pope Francis himself are largely ignoring the current crisis in the Church, which involves homosexual predation of seminarians and other adults. Although the pope has convened a synod in February where bishops will gather to address the sex abuse crisis, the synod will not address abuse of adults. The Vatican has made clear it will focus on prevention of abuse of minors and "vulnerable adults" — but the phrase "vulnerable adults" is deceptive, as it does not include seminarians, priests or the average adult.

"Vulnerable adults" has a particular definition in the Church that only includes adults with serious mental, psychological or emotional disabilities, e.g., those with brain damage or some physical or psychological impediment — in other words, adults who are the functional equivalent of minors.

Former Cdl. Theodore McCarrick, the face of the response to the sex abuse crisis in 2002, has now become the face of the current abuse crisis, which revolves primarily around abuse not of minors but of adults. McCarrick was the classic case of abuse of power, an authority figure preying on younger men in his care, whose futures could rise or fall based on his word. As bishop, it was well known among clergy that he would invite seminarians to his beach house on the Jersey Shore, where he would lure them to sleep in his bed. Some encounters resulted in sexual assault.

In spite of penalties placed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict (the pope forbade McCarrick from traveling or making public appearances), when Pope Francis was elected in 2013, he chose to ignore the penalties and promoted McCarrick to the position of trusted advisor and kingmaker in naming future bishops. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops and one of Francis' allies, admitted as much in his letter responding to whistleblower Abp. Carlo Maria Viganò.

To this day, the Church has no clear rules for dealing with sexual predation of adults — something Catholic laity have demanded the bishops address by revising the Dallas Charter to include zero tolerance for abuse of adults. The pope and bishops, however, have largely ignored these pleas, instead opting to focus only on minors.

To this day, the Church has no clear rules for dealing with sexual predation of adults.

For instance, Chicago's Cdl. Blase Cupich — who in 2016 quietly shut down Casa Jesus seminary after multiple reports of homosexual misconduct, and who recently endured a scandal involving a marriage tribunal judge arrested in Miami, Florida for engaging in public gay sex with another priest in residence in Chicago — refuses to address the problem of homosexual predation of adults, instead repeatedly focusing on minors, deflecting the issue away from homosexuality and instead blaming "clericalism" — language adopted by Pope Francis and affirmed in the final Youth Synod document.

Testimony from John Monaco, a recent seminarian in Boston, led to the launch of an investigation into homosexual misconduct in all seminaries in the Boston archdiocese. And testimony from Peter Mitchell, former seminarian in the Lincoln, Nebraska diocese, led to the opening of a criminal probe into the Catholic Church by the state attorney general.

The earthquake that was the McCarrick revelations, and more disturbingly the fact that multiple Church leaders knew of his sexual misconduct yet tolerated it and even allowed him to rise through the ranks, coupled with many other accounts from seminarians across the country, reveal a widespread problem of homosexual predation in U.S. seminaries — yet bishops remain reticent on this score, instead choosing to repeat their mantra on preventing abuse of minors. The bishops' decision to drop "zero tolerance" from the Youth Synod final document only bolsters the appearance that Church leaders have little interest in addressing the actual crisis in the Church, skirting the issue by their continual focus on minors, with the hope the scandal will eventually blow over and they can return to business as usual.


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