Friday, February 22, 2019
Summit on Clerical Sexual Abuse - Day I
February 21st marked the first day of The Protection of Minors in the Church Meeting at the Vatican. There is an extensive website with the text of many of the presentations here. Furthermore, Crux has coverage here.
There were some positive signs and other rather disturbing ones. On the positive side, Pope Francis opened the meeting noting, “The Holy People of God are watching us and wait for more than simple condemnations, they expect concrete and effective measures.” Now is not the time for vague spiritual statements. Now is the time for specific actions. The structure of the meeting seems to suggest an understanding of that with each day having a theme. The first was Responsibility, Friday is Accountability, and next will be Transparency. These themes certainly reflect pillars necessary for the hierarchy to move forward.
Also positive was the opening of the meeting with video testimonials from survivors of clerical abuse. They were candid and searing (one woman describing repeated rapes by a priest, forced abortions, and severe beatings), but if the text released by the Vatican is any indication – relatively brief. Voices of survivors are essential to this process. One of the causes of this crisis is a fundamental failure of the Church hierarchy to understand the realities of child sexual abuse – its violence, its destruction, its pain, the lifelong scars inflicted not only on the victims, but their present and future families. As one victim described it in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, it is “murder of the soul.” These video statements, although brief, appear to begin with answering the question “what hurt you most?” This is an important question – the answers to which must be heard by these clerics.
While the voices of some survivors were indeed present, the theme of responsibility to provide justice to survivors was aptly captured by this survivor’s op ed which all should read. It captures some of the lifelong pain endured by survivors and the bishops could benefit from reading it.
That being said, one must ask how one can become a bishop in the Church hierarchy and still need to be educated on the realities of sexual abuse. Some bishops were quoted as saying the problem in their diocese was very minimal, or still resisting bishops’ accountability for a failure to act. Yet, as The Atlantic reported recently, major news organizations began covering stories of abuse by the early nineties. But it extends much further than that. The reality is that this has been an issue in our world and in the Church hierarchy for over 100 years. In 1870 a bishop wrongly excommunicated Mother Mary MacKillop for her disclosing a priest’s sexual abuse of a child (the bishop rescinded this action on his deathbed). The fact of the matter is that one should not need to be educated on a problem – both the abuse and the efforts to create a climate of silence – that has been well documented, for over a century. Understanding of this issue should be a prerequisite for any person serving the faithful, but certainly to becoming a leader in the hierarchy. If child sexual abuse were understood – truly understood in all its horror - the resistance to reform and accountability of bishops, would likely disappear.
Similarly, some survivor groups are disappointed with the Pope’s “21 points of reflection” which appear to be intended as a framework for conversation. Prior to the meeting survivors and advocacy groups demanded that this meeting “deliver clear outcomes if it is to begin to restore the church’s damaged credibility on the issue and avoid being seen as a talking shop.” While these points call for some specific action, in the eyes of many survivors they fall short of the “concrete” zero tolerance policy so often promised, but not achieved.
This is a meeting of leaders. Leadership requires knowledge and courage. Hopefully the bishops are receiving some of that knowledge over these days – knowledge they should already have possessed. But the challenge in the past has been to both listening and then to execution. Whether they have the courage to act on this overdue knowledge correctly will be determined in the coming days.