After four days, a successful summit?

As Pope Francis delivered his closing remarks of the abuse summit, which took place last week in Rome, what should have been a game-changing event came uncomfortably close to a failure. While it was perhaps optimistic to expect concrete measures within hours after the summit’s close, the papal speech should have been much more than a generic overview of abuse across society and (again) a statement that it should not be tolerated in the Church. We know this (and those who don’t have no business holding any position of authority in the Church). Although the insistence on appropriate steps is to be welcomed, the responses, especially those of victims, were understandably angry and disappointed. But the words of Pope Francis will not be all that comes from the summit.

A press conference revealed that we can expect a follow-up meeting (which took place on Monday with the heads of Curia departments and the pope), a Motu Proprio on the topic, a ‘rule book’ for bishops and religious superiors to outline the laws and procedures, and last but not least, the conduct we must expect from them in cases of sexual abuse, as well as task forces available to assist dioceses and bishops’ conferences in fighting abuse. But, the real work must take place across the world, in dioceses, parishes, and religious orders and movements, down to every single Catholic everywhere. There is no way that this can be the final word. The work continues.

But, as this step has been taken, we can ask, has it been a good step? What has the summit given to the 190 participants, that they can take with them and use to make the Catholic Church a safe environment for everyone?

During the three-day meeting, nine presentations were given by various clergy and laity. These, together with the opening and closing remarks by Pope Francis, are the most substantial elements of the summit that were shared with the wider public (in a welcome change from recent Synod practices, the presentations were streamed live and the texts published soon after the presentations were held). In order, these presentations were:

  1. Smell of the sheep. Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd’s task“, by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.
  2. Church as field hospital. Taking responsibility“, by Archbishop Charles Scicluna.
  3. The Church in a moment of crisis – Facing conflicts and tensions and acting decisively“, by Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez.
  4. Collegiality: sent together“, by Cardinal Oswald Gracias.
  5. Synodality: jointly responsible“, by Cardinal Blase Cupich.
  6. Communio: to work together“, by Dr. Linda Ghisoni.
  7. Openess: sent out into the world“, by Sister Veronica Openibo.
  8. Transparency in a community of believers“, by Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
  9. Communication: to all people“, by Dr. Valentina Alazraki

Together, these presentations served as reminders of the correct conduct towards victims, the regulations that are in place or which should be created, but also the consequences that follow when the Church and her members stick their heads in the sand and look out for themselves and their reputation before the wellbeing and rights of the victims. Dr. Alazraki, speaking as a reporter, did not mince words when she said that the media wants to stand next to the Church in her efforts to uncover the truth, but if she tries to hide that truth, the media will be the Church’s greatest enemy.

The only claim to success that this summit has is the future. If the words spoken over the past days remain just that, nothing will change. They must lead to action. Abuse, sexual or otherwise, has no place in society, and least of all in the Church. The only response to abuse can be to stand with the victims and the truth.

 

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In the run-up to global abuse meeting, Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman look to its outcome

Thursday will see the beginning of perhaps the most charged and certainly most anticipated Vatican event in some time: the bishops’ summit on abuse, in which the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, representatives of religious movements and  the heads of a number of curia dicasteries will meet over the course of three days to discuss a unified approach to sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.  Expectations about its outcome are high, although they may be too high considering the brief length of the meeting and its focus, not on formulating unfified policies – these often already exist – but on getting every single bishop on the same time. After this week, no bishop should have the excuse of saying he did not know of any abuse or how to deal with it.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166On behalf of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Hans van den Hende will attend the meeting in his capacity as the body’s president. The bishop of Rotterdam already met with the pope in December, together with Dr. Wim Deetman, who headed the Dutch investigation into the abuse that took place over past decades. This audience took place out of the pope’s desire to be informed about what the Dutch bishops had done to combat abuse and to compensate the victims. Some have seen that approach as an example for the rest of the world. Bishop van den Hende, in a recent interview, agrees with that, saying, “The joint approach of bishops and religious as it took shape in the Netherlands, in combination with an independent investigation and an independent procedure, is, I think, a good example of recognition and commitment with regards to the victims.”

About the expectations of the summit and its outcome, Bishop van den Hende is catious.

“Much will depend on the results of the meeting, that is to say if the goals established by the pope will be fully achieved. You can only come to plans of actions out of the recoginition of the seriousness of the abuse and the joint willingness to come to a true commitment. I am not sure if this can be achieved in the short timespan granted to the upcoming meeting, but it is necessary to take true steps forward in the world Church.”

In another interview, Dr. Deetman showed himself a bit more optimistic:

“I don’t know what the pope plans to do, he did not express himself about that to me. But if Pope Francis, in those four days in Rome, is able to convince the bishops that the abuse is a major problem which concerns the entire Church, and which requires a thorough approach, the meeting will in a sense already have been successful. Then something can be done on a global scale. That also means that a second meeting must soon follow.”

2018-12-18-Audientie_WimDeetman_00011_19122018-klein-465x300Dr. Deetman, shown at left while meeting Pope Francis, believes that the Dutch investigation and program of compensation is indeed an example of how things should be done in other locations as well.

“You must outsource such an investigation [into abuse]. Multidisciplinary and with free access to the archives. I emphasised that to the pope. Also very important: it concerns facts. Make sure that nothing remains swept under the carpet. If you want to properly investigate what went wrong in the various Church provinces and in the Vatican itself, it must be independent, and the results must be made public, with anjustification of the methods of investigation. Without any doubt.”

But Dr. Deetman also urged for caution:

“You must be careful, also when it concerns perpetrators. We have had to conclude that someone had been accused, but it later turned out that he or she could impossible have done it. You do damage someone’s reputation and name. And something else: something may be ‘plausible’, but even then there all kinds of degrees of plausibility”.

This is a good reminder. In recent headline cases in which prelates have been accussed of knowing of the actions of abusers – I mention a Cardinal Wuerl or Farrell – conclusions are drawn before the facts have been studied. This is not something that should be encouraged, although it is understandable when it comes to such horrible acts.

Photo credit: [2] Servizio Fotografico – L’Osservatore Romano

Head of the Dutch bishops meets the Pope – some speculations about how the Church fights abuse

Although no details have emerged about yesterday’s private audience of Bishop Hans van den Hende and Dr. Wim Deetman with Pope Francis, the mere names of the participants make it virtually impossible to not conclude that the abuse crisis must have been at the heart of the encounter.

DSC_2699_31481e79b67ab70c5ca711c62299f166Bishop van den Hende (at right) is the bishop of Rotterdam and the president of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference and, as such, will take part in February’s meeting in Rome with all the heads of the world’s bishops’ conference to discuss the abuse crisis and formulate a unified response. Dr. Deetman, former education minister and mayor of The Hague, headed the investigation into historical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church on behalf of the bishops and the Conference of Dutch Religious.

A recent study by the Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reveals that, in the seen years since the publication of the Deetman Commission’s conclusions, there have been 103 background checks on priests who were under consideration of being transferred or appointed in one of the Dutch dioceses. In one case a bishop blocked such a transfer or appointment because of past abuse claims against the priest involved. Similarly, a further 46 claims of “unacceptable behaviour” have been made since 2015, eight of which involved sexually unacceptable behaviour committed after the publication of the Deetman report. These all involved adults, not minors, and three of the claims are still under investigation. Two of the claims involve an unnamed religious movement which does not fall under the authority of a bishop and is also not a member of the Conference of Dutch Religious. An unidentified auxiliary bishop has informed the Vatican and the police about the movement and the claims against them, as well as his own bishop, who is keeping an eye on the developing situation.

Also interesting in light of the private audience is a letter sent to the participants in the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”, scheduled to take place from 21 to 24 February. The letter, issued by the organising committee consisting of Cardinals Cupich and Gracias, Archbishop Scicluna and Father Zollner, emphasised that “Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.” The authors urge the Conference presidents to reach out to and meet with victims before the meeting, something which the Dutch bishops, as well as bishops from other countries, have been doing over the last few years. In other countries, however, this is something new.* The letter concludes: “[E]ach of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable.”

As said, it will probably remain unknown what Bishop van den Hende and Dr. Deetman discussed with the Pope, unless one of them chooses to reveal something, but if the abuse crisis was discussed, perhaps the actions of the Dutch bishops, which can be an example of correct policies, not just for the Church, but for society as a whole, will influence the preparations of the February meeting in a constructive and positive way.

* A recent development from the Archdiocese of Cologne comes to mind, where a priest from Cameroon had been working among the French-speaking faithful. This despite the fact that he had been laicised in his home diocese. However, for his work abroad, his bishop is said to have issued letters confirming his good standing… The exact details remain unclear. The laicisation is aid to have taken place in 2013, and there is talk of an emeritus bishop of the Archdiocese of Bertoua having provided credentials to the former priest. The only living emeritus archbishop of that see is Belgian-born Roger Pirenne, who retired in 2009. Why credentials were seemingly issued by a retired bishop, instead of current Archbishop Joseph Atanga, remains unclear. It is clear, however, that the abuse issues is not yet being taken seriously in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that the February meeting can do something to change that.

Photo credit: KN/Jan Peeters