Explaining the Vatican’s lingering ambivalence on “zero tolerance”

Vatican Zero Tolerance Ambivalence

Title: Explaining the Vatican’s lingering ambivalence on “zero tolerance”

Author: John L Allen Jr.

Publisher: Crux

Date: 31MAY2020

Explaining the Vatican’s lingering ambivalence on “zero tolerance”

Anne Barrett Doyle, co-founder of the online research database, holds a picture of Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli, right, next to Peter Isely, member of the organization called Ending Clergy Abuse, holding a sign that reads in Spanish, “Zero tolerance Argentina 2019” outside a church in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, May 2, 2019. The two, with others, are demanding Buenos Aires Archbishop Mario Poli have a “zero tolerance” policy regarding abuse and put an end to what they see as cover ups by members of the church. (Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/AP.)

ROME – “Zero tolerance” for sexual abuse has become one of those notoriously elastic phrases, such as “change,” “hope” and “progress,” which everyone claims to be for but no one seems to define in exactly the same way.

In American Catholic parlance, however, the term “zero tolerance” does have a fairly precise meaning, derived from the US bishops’ 2002 Dallas charter and norms: Permanent removal from ministry, and, in most cases, laicization, for even one justified allegation of sexual abuse of a minor.

In that sense, “zero tolerance” remains a contested point. To this day, a central plank in the indictment of many abuse survivors and their advocates is that the Vatican has not imposed a universal “zero tolerance” policy everywhere in the world, which is often taken as a sign of reluctance to reform.

In part, such perceptions are rooted in memory. When the abuse scandals broke out in the United States in 2002, several Vatican officials initially dismissed them as a uniquely “American problem” and described the “zero tolerance” policy as a legalistic and Puritanical American overreaction.

That knee-jerk response was entirely about deflection and denial, and so the association between opposition to zero tolerance and “not getting it” was forged.

In the almost two decades since, however, it’s become clear there are also grounds for ambivalence about “zero tolerance” policies which aren’t just rooted in defensiveness, protecting the clerical club or insensitivity to victims. Like everything else, debates over the next steps in Pope Francis’s reform efforts were temporarily put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic, but the questions remain and it’s far from obvious what may happen next.

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