Is the Pope’s fight against sexual abuse in the Church slipping away from him?

There has been an in-flight wedding, a preview on next year’s Synod of Bishops assembly on the Amazon and encounters with the peripheries of Church and society, but Pope Francis’ ongoing visit to Chile and Peru has been marred by an apparent slacking off in the fight against sexual abuse in the Church. Some have even claimed that we are back at square one.

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At the end of a meeting with survivors of sexual abuse in Iquique on 18 January, the Holy Father was asked about the case of Bishop Juan Barros. The bishop of Osorno, appointed by Pope Francis in 2015, continues to be accused of having been aware of  the abuse perpetrated by Fr. Fernando Karadima in the 1980s. Survivor groups, as well as lay faithful in the Diocese of Osorno and other Chilean dioceses, have consistently called for Bishop Barros not to be appointed (or, now that he has been, to be removed). During the papal visit, protesters continued to make their voices heard. Following the private meeting with abuse survivors, in which the pope talked, prayed and wept with them, he commented on the Barros case, “The day I’m presented with proof against Bishop Barros, I will see. There’s not a single proof against him, it’s all a calumny. Is that clear?”

This harsh comment has been almost universally condemned, not least by some of the pope’s closest collaborators in the fight against sexual abuse. Marie Collins, former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, tweeted on 20 January ,referring to Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of sexual abuse:

“In labelling [Juan Carlos Cruz] and his fellow Chilean survivors as guilty of slander the Pope has alligned himself with Cardinals Ezzati and Errazuriz, who, in an exchange of derogatory e-mails in 2015, conspired to block [Juan Carlos Cruz from] consideration for membership of the [Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors].”

42212019_401By claiming all accusations against Bishop Barros as slander or calumny, Pope Francis has indeed taking a major step back in how the Church relates to victims. Rather than listening to what they have to say, they are being silenced and ignored. Of course, this is what the Church has until recently been guilty of doing for decades, and what many parts of society still do to this day, when confronted with accusations of abuse. While it seems as yet unclear what role Bishop Barros may have played, the claims against Fr. Karadima at least are reliable. Karadima’s case was dismissed by the courts because the statute of limitations had expired, but the allegations were deemed nonetheless credible. The Vatican sentenced Fr. Karadima to a live of penance and prayer in 2011.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is headed by Cardinal Séan O’Malley. The archbishop of Boston also released comments about what the pope had said, saying:

“It is understandable that Pope Francis’ statements yesterday in Santiago, Chile were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy or any other perpetrator. Words that convey the message “if you cannot prove your claims then you will not be believed” abandon those who have suffered reprehensible criminal violations of their human dignity and relegate survivors to discredited exile.”

Cardinal_OMalley1Very strong words condemning what Pope Francis said. The cardinal then continues his comments by underlining the Holy Father’s commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse:

“Accompanying the Holy Father at numerous meetings with survivors I have witnessed his pain of knowing the depth and breadth of the wounds inflicted on those who were abused and that the process of recovery can take a lifetime. The Pope’s statements that there is no place in the life of the Church for those who would abuse children and that we must adhere to zero tolerance for these crimes are genuine and they are his commitment.”

There is an odd contrast here, between the pope’s apparent commitment to fighting abuse and the comment he made. That contrast is strengthened further by the continuing silence surrounding the new mandates of the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These were up for renewal over the course of last year (some in March, others in December), but no word has yet come out. In essence, the Commission now exists in a sort of limbo.

With the creation of the Commission, Pope Francis was off to a good start in this matter. For the first time, survivors had a say in how the Church should respond. Of course, that has since changed. New members were added, but two survivors chose to leave the Commission. In March it’ll be four years since its establishment, and that is too soon for the Commission to be forgotten, ignored or otherwise becoming irrelevant. Its work is too important.

Hopefully, these two developments, the pope’s accusation of calumny and the silence surrounding the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors are simply hiccups, and the commitment of the Catholic Church to combat sexual abuse of minors under her responsibility will continue to grow.

Photo credit: [1] Reuters, [2] Reuters / A. Bianchi, [3] Flickr/George Martell-Pilot New Media

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Fighting the resistance – Fr. Zollner on the struggle of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

In an interview published by Katholisch.de today, Father Hans Zollner SJ sheds his light on the resistance from certain persons in the Roman Curia against measures to fight sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy or other representatives of the Church. Fr. Zollner is a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, most recently in the news because of the departure of Ms. Marie Collins, herself a survivor of abuse. She named the aforementioned resistance against the commission’s work as the main reason for leaving. Fr. Zollner explains:

ZollnerHans-SIR“Of course there is resistance, but not specifically against the representatives of victims or the Commission. The entire topic of abuse is deeply terrible and frightening. Dealing with it and facing it requires a lot of courage. And I believe that many clerics, but also non-clerics, find this very difficult. This is not limited to the Curia. Last Monday – three years after the establishment of the Commission – I was able to speak for the first time about this topic to the Italian bishops in Bologna. It was the same in Ecuador and Colombia a few weeks ago, and next week it will be the same in Malawi. We must conclude that the topic of abuse has not yet registered worldwide. Not in the Church, but also not in society. But it can no longer be ignored now. That is also a merit of the Commission: it has made it public across the world. The question remains if those responsible in the Church will actively pursue the topic out of self-motivation, or only when scandals become public.”

While, according to Fr. Zollner, the resistance that exists is not based on anything exlusive to the Church, but rather the human hesitation of dealing with something painful, there are specific problems in the Church that must be dealt with before the scourge of sexual abuse can be efficiently fought.

“On the one hand, people criticise Rome – in part rightly so -, which does not handle the topic of child abuse coherently. On the other hand bishops’ conferences continue to refuse to implement instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from the year 2011. Of course, one can wonder who no take them to task about this. Very simply: because the Church has no means to sanction entire bishops’ conference. Even five years after the deadline set by Rome, for example, some West-African countries have no guidelines for dealing with victims and perpetrators of abuse.”

The Catholic Church is not a big company, with the Pope as a sort of CEO. There is only so much Rome can do, even when everyone there cooperates, to enforce policies like the 2011 CDF instruction. Levelling accusations against the Curia or the Pope, while sometimes justified, is often too simplistic.

Photo credit: SIR

Pope Francis’ letter – a call to action and cooperation

francisIt’s a fairly short, but also very clear, letter that Pope Francis released today, on the topic of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and other Church workers. In essence, it is both a repeat exercise to emphasise the Church’s dedication of rooting out sexual abuse (of both minors and vulnerable adults), and a call to the world’s bishops and religious superiors, anyone in charge of the Church’s major groupings of faithful, to work with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. And that latter part is quite unique.

It may be assumed that the dicasteries of the Curia can expect the cooperation of the clergy and faithful of the Church, but we don’t usually get an express urging from the Pope to do so. It underlines how important the work of this Commission is. In a way, it is the next step in the fight: first, the abuse needed to be known and the local churches had to come to terms with the terrible things that happened in the past. Over time, they came to establish means and measures to bring perpetrators to justice and offer a listening ear and healing to the victims. And now those efforts have come together: the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors will have the final word in what the local churches need to do.

Cardinal-Sean-OMalleyThe Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has seven members, a president and a secretary. The President is Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley (at right), the archbishop of Boston. Serving as secretary is Msgr. Robert Oliver, also a Bostonian. Both won much experience in dealing with the child abuse crisis as it broke in the United States, a prelude, it later turned out, to what would become known in other parts of the world. The members of the Commission come from various countries in all continents and include two survivors of sexual abuse: Marie Collins from Ireland and Peter Saunders from the United Kingdom. Other members are experts in psychology, social services, counselling, human trafficking, but also civil and canon law, religious life and theology.

My Dutch translation of Pope Francis’ letter is available here.

Outlining the path to the future – Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors gets to work

The Holy See’s new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors had its first meeting from 1 to 3 May. They focussed primarily at making recommendation to Pope Francis about how the Commission should function. On behalf of the Commission, members Marie Collins, Fr. Hans Zollner and Cardinal Seán O’Malley made the following press statement. This is important to get an idea of how the Church will combat sexual abuse by clergy and other Church workers in the future [emphases in bold mine]:

“As we begin our service together, we wish to express our heartfelt solidarity with all victims/survivors of sexual abuse as children and vulnerable adults and to share that, from the very beginning of our work, we have adopted the principle that the best interests of a child or vulnerable adult are primary when any decision is made.
During our meetings, each of us have been able to share our thoughts, experiences, and our aspirations for this Pontifical Commission. Responding to our Holy Father’s requests, these discussions focused on the Commission’s nature and purpose and on expanding the membership to include people from other geographical areas and other areas of expertise. Our conversations included many proposals for ways in which the Commission might collaborate with experts from different areas related to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. We also met with some people from the Roman Curia regarding areas for future cooperation, including representatives from the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Gendarmerie.

As an advisory commission to the Holy Father, the fruit of our work will be communicated to Pope Francis. In time, we will propose initiatives to encourage local responsibility around the world and the mutual sharing of “best practices” for the protection of all minors, including programs for training, education, formation, and responses to abuse. We have also shared with Pope Francis how important certain areas are to us in our future work. We see ensuring accountability in the Church as especially important, including developing means for effective and transparent protocols and processes.

We will propose Statutes to the Holy Father to express more precisely the Commission’s nature, structure, activity, and the goals. It is clear, for example, that the Commission will not deal with individual cases of abuse, but we can make recommendations regarding policies for assuring accountability and best practice. In the Statutes, we plan to make specific proposals regarding the importance of emphasizing ways for raising the awareness of all people regarding the tragic consequences of sexual abuse and of the devastating consequences of not listening, not reporting suspicion of abuse, and failing to support victims/survivors and their families.

As the Catholic people make our parishes, schools, and institutions safe for all children, we join with people of good will in our endeavour to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from abuse. We request the prayers of all who wish to support the work of the Commission.”

Cardinal Levada opens abuse symposium, urges a multi-faceted but united response to the crisis

Yesterday, the major symposium on sexual abuse in the Church, “Toward Healing and Renewal”, began at the Pontifical Gregorian University with an address by Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This Congregation is, of course, the one to deal with the most serious crimes, the graviora delicta, against faith, the sacraments, and also sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy.

Cardinal Levada is the first of several speakers at the symposium, which will end on Thursday. The addresses of other speakers, including that of abuse victim Marie Collins, are available in several languages here. In addition, Cardinal Levada’s address is also available in Dutch.

These are valuable texts, and should be read and consider with such documents as the pope’s letter to the faithful of Ireland and the Circular Letter that Cardinal Levada uses as the basis for his address. The Church’s response to the abuse crisis, at the highest level, is formulated here.

Attending the symposium are representatives of some 100 bishops’ conferences. Representing the Netherlands is Bishop Theodorus Hoogenboom.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis