Sunday, February 24, 2019
These were the words of Sister Veronica Openibo, the leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus who spoke on February 23 at the Vatican summit on sexual abuse of minors. After reading about her profound speech I had simply planned to post a link to it without any commentary, as by all accounts her blunt speech captured so much of the Church crisis. Unfortunately, her speech has not yet been posted by the Holy See but should appear here when available. The video is available here.
Sr. Openibo, a Nigerian sister, earned her graduate degree from Boston College and is the first African sister to be elected leader of her order, which was originally founded in England. She was one of three women to speak at the meeting. For those without time to watch the video, here are some of what the media has reported she shared with the overwhelmingly male audience:
CNN covered her speech noting:
“In clear, direct and unsparing language, Openibo challenged the church's culture of silence on sexual issues and said priests are too often put on pedestals. Openibo also criticized the practice of letting elderly clergy who had abused children retire quietly with their pension and good names in place.
‘Let us not hide such events anymore because of the fear of making mistakes,’ Openibo said after reading a searing summary of abuse cases she has heard about during her work on sexual education in Nigeria.
‘Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by. Our credibility is at stake.’"
She specifically rejected the claims by some bishops that this is not a problem in Africa and Asia by referring to the many cases she has worked on first hand.
Crux included the following from her speech:
“’We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church,’ she said.
She urged a strong “zero tolerance” policy: ‘By taking the necessary steps and maintaining zero tolerance with regard to sexual abuse we will release the oppressed.…’”
Notably, Crux also reported that she praised the Pope for his apparent change of heart on the abuse crisis.
“’I read with great interest many articles about the pope’s reactions in the case of the Chilean bishops - from a denial of accusations, to anger because of deception and cover-up, to the acceptance of resignations of bishops,’ she said.
‘I admire you, Brother Francis, for taking time as a true Jesuit, to discern and be humble enough to change your mind, to apologize and take action. This is an example for all of us….’”
As we wait for the sharing of the full text of her and other presentations, Crux has written an analysis of the outsized impact of the three women who spoke at the meeting. While in some way they all were part of the inner workings of the Church, they also seem to have made the most of this rare opportunity and provided an essential voice in the discussion of the crisis.
This impact mirrors the words of Pope Francis who closed the meeting with a mass in which he is reported to have stated “Indeed, in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons….It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.”
While the summit was filled with at times frank and blistering acknowledgement of failings, some continue to criticize the meeting as lacking concrete steps. However, healthy skepticism remains with many faithful that these words will result in action – the kind of action that will bring justice and transparency.
The next weeks and months are the critical time. They will demonstrate whether this summit was a success and the only measurement will be concrete measures to effectuate responsibility, accountability, and transparency.
As the meeting comes to a close, I think of the words of the well respected survivor of abuse, Marie Collins, who served on the Pope’s 2013 commission on child sexual abuse that was supposed to address this issue. Ms. Collins faithfully tried to serve on this commission, but ultimately resigned after a number of years due to the failure of the curia to execute the recommendation of the commission. When asked what she would have told the Pope about her resignation she stated that “she would have asked him for three things: that the commission be given the power to implement their recommendations; that it be given more funds to do its work; and to lift the ban on recruiting professional staff from outside the church to work on the issue.”
The hierarchy would be wise to heed that advice now and actually execute a zero tolerance policy with independent outside lay experts leading the effort, and the institutional support to execute the vision of accountability, justice, and transparency in a real way.