Analysis: Archbishop McCarrick, Bishop Zanchetta, Pope Francis, and the Vatican abuse summit

By JD Flynn

CNA—A long-awaited summit on sexual abuse will take place at the Vatican two weeks from now.

The meeting was announced in September, a few months after allegations of sexual abuse and coercion on the part of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick became public, and just weeks after Pope Francis himself was accused by former apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano of failing to adequately respond to information he had purportedly been given about McCarrick.

It is no surprise that there are high expectations among many American Catholics for the meeting. It has been the centerpiece of the pope’s response to the Church’s snowballing sexual abuse crisis, and its importance was cited among the reasons the Vatican delayed a U.S. bishops’ conference vote on a reform package they’d hoped to pass in November.

Organizers, Vatican officials, and even the pope have tried to temper expectations for the meeting. They’ve said that concrete policies won’t emerge after a three-day gathering, and that attendees will instead discuss general principles that can be taken home to develop into policy at the national level. Organizers have also, from the beginning, said that the meeting concerns principally the sexual abuse of minors and “vulnerable adults,” a technical term referring to intellectually disabled or psychologically ailing adults.

Some Vatican officials have suggested that the meeting will focus mostly on encouraging bishops’ conferences from far-flung corners of the globe to adopt a set of policies similar to the “Dallas Charter” promulgated by the U.S. bishops’ conference, or the Canadian bishops’ “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse.”

Of course, frustration among American Catholics is not focused primarily, at least at the moment, on developing new norms regarding the protection of minors. U.S. Catholics have instead called for the Church to respond to allegations of the sexual abuse and coercion of seminarians, young priests, and others, by bishops and others in positions of power, and for procedures to investigate allegations of negligence or malfeasance on the part of bishops. None of the questions raised by U.S. Catholics in recent months are likely to be at the center of the discussions this month at the Vatican.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the practical results of the meeting will inspire among U.S. Catholics, including priests and bishops, a greater confidence in the Church’s handling of a constellation of problems in dioceses across the U.S., among them a perceived lack of episcopal accountability and concerns about a culture that has not sufficiently addressed sexual coercion and abuse involving adults.


If the substantial output of the summit is unlikely to restore confidence among American Catholics, then, insofar as doing so is a goal of the meeting, any success on that front will depend on the witness of Pope Francis, and the message he chooses to deliver.

If the pontiff can reassure U.S. Catholics that he will work with U.S. bishops’ conference officials to help catalyze some iteration of the reform package under review in November, or some other set of reforms, he may set in motion a restoration of confidence among U.S. Catholics.

But as the meeting begins, there are at least two factors that could make it hard for U.S. Catholics to trust the leadership of Pope Francis on this issue.

The first is McCarrick himself. It is widely rumored in Rome that a verdict in McCarrick’s canonical trial is forthcoming, and could be announced as early as Feb. 12. McCarrick is expected to be laicized. Sources tell CNA that McCarrick might also leave the Kansas friary where he is living to take up residence in a private apartment. But regardless of whether McCarrick is laicized, many U.S. Catholics, bishops among them, are likely to continue to press the Vatican for answers about who knew what about McCarrick, and when.

The evidence seems to demonstrate that Vatican officials had knowledge of at least McCarrick’s reputation for decades. The response to that knowledge, to the judgment of some observers, seems to have been tepid. And while discussions about McCarrick’s past, and the Vatican’s knowledge, tend quickly to devolve into internecine tribal warfare, it seems likely that U.S. Catholics will continue to ask how McCarrick could have had such a renowned ecclesiastical career, and who, in the American and curial hierarchy, might have been covering for him.

To date, it does not seem that Pope Francis is prepared to release a thorough report on the results of an internal Vatican investigation into McCarrick’s career, or to order a more comprehensive investigation stateside.

A verdict in his trial will likely satisfy many Catholics that justice has been done. But if answers are not forthcoming about the broader McCarrick investigation, and if McCarrick’s successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is still leading the Archdiocese of Washington when the summit begins, at least some Catholics will have a difficult time trusting in the pope’s commitment to sincere renewal.

The second obstacle the pope will face is the investigation into Argentine Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, who faces allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct involving seminarians. Zanchetta resigned from his leadership of the Diocese of Oran in July 2017, citing difficulty managing the assignment he took over in 2013. In December 2017 he was appointed by Francis to a newly-created leadership position in APSA, the curial department that oversees the Vatican’s real estate holdings and financial assets.

Last month, the Associated Press reported that Francis had known since at least 2015 about allegations of misconduct regarding Zanchetta, and had even been sent lewd selfies of the bishop to review. Francis apparently accepted Zanchetta’s excuse that his cell phone had been hacked, and dismissed the allegations as a part of a smear campaign.

In short, Francis at least seems to have allowed Zanchetta to continue as a diocesan bishop for two years after learning about serious allegations against the man, and then to have appointed him to a Vatican position once diocesan administration became untenable for him to manage.

An investigation into Zanchetta is now underway. The degree to which it might exonerate or implicate Francis is, of course, not yet known. The story has not garnered much attention in the U.S.- in part because the AP reported it just days before the nation’s attention was consumed by Nathan Phillips and the social media scandal surrounding the March for Life. But more details may emerge in the next few weeks, and bishops, certainly, are watching the story closely.


If Francis is to argue convincingly that he is serious about eradicating a culture of clericalism and secrecy, the allegations connecting him and Zanchetta will likely become a major obstacle for him, especially if they remain unaddressed.

Those factors may not bode well for the immediate outcome of the Vatican summit. However, it is worth noting that behind the scenes, the leadership of the U.S. bishops’ conference has been working with curial officials in Rome on reforming their reform package. They are likely to finalize some proposed measures at committee meetings in March, in order to send them to Rome for approval well in advance of any possible votes at their Baltimore meeting in June.

Whether Catholics are confident in that process, or whether their simmering frustration will be stoked into flame by unmet expectations over the Vatican meeting, remains to be seen.

In either case, the relationship between Francis and Zanchetta offers a valuable lesson for bishops, in the U.S. and elsewhere. The AP has reported that Pope Francis was the long-time confessor of Zanchetta, and that while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he treated Zanchetta as his spiritual son.

A relationship like that one, between confessor and penitent, or spiritual director and directee, can cloud judgment if the same people are also in a hierarchically-related administrative relationship. That clouding seems at times to be almost inevitable.

Lay parish employees, for example, learn quickly that, however careful they are not to mix fora, it is usually not a good idea for one’s boss to be one’s confessor. Seminaries and religious institutes set clear rules about keeping confidential spiritual relationships, especially those that discuss sinfulness, outside the “chain of command.” Bishops are generally careful not to become the intimate spiritual confidantes of their priests and chancery employees.

An awareness of the sinful habits of a subordinate can sometimes lead to prejudgement of the person or distrust. But just as often, it can lead to a kind of disordered empathy for a subordinate whom one knows is struggling. That empathy, if unchecked, can lead to poor administrative decisions. That fact might explain the reason why bishops have mishandled allegations made against their priests, at least in some cases. And, though neither Francis nor Zanchetta has suggested as much, it could explain why Francis seems to have mishandled the situation of Zanchetta- if he had a paternal relationship to the man, and an awareness of his apparent struggles, he might have made errors in administrative judgment- like allowing the bishop to remain in diocesan ministry, or finding a place for him at Vatican.

Those are questions Francis could face during the investigation of Zanchetta, and they could provide the pope insight into the need for more exacting demarcations drawn between bishops’ spiritual roles as pastors and their administrative responsibilities as diocesan leaders.

There are, of course, other storylines to follow as the Vatican summit approaches. Questions swirl around the way in which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, has handled some allegations in his Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. New reports have demonstrated the scope of a global problem concerning sexual coercion and abuse toward religious sisters. U.S. bishops continue to face state and federal investigations, and some bishops who have been accused of misconduct remain in office without apparent investigations.

The pope has said that he is working to prepare for the meeting, and asked for prayers. While the summit may achieve a great deal of good on the global scale, if it is also to restore U.S. confidence in Church leadership, those prayers will certainly be needed.


JD Flynn is editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency as of August 2017.

Leave a Reply