MUMBAI, India – Church leaders in India have been called to “conversion, transparency, sincerity and solidarity with victims” when responding to clerical sexual abuse.

Sister Arina Gonsalves, a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), addressed the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India on Monday, telling the prelates that every diocese and Catholic institution must have a child protection policy in place.

Gonsalves served as a member of the child protection committee for the Archdiocese of Bombay before being named to the Vatican commission in 2016; the PCPM was established by Pope Francis in 2014 and is headed by Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley.

“As you know, we are firmly committed to carrying out the reforms needed to encourage from the outset a culture of pastoral care, so that the culture of abuse will have no room to develop, much less continue,” she told the bishops gathered in Bangalore for their 34th plenary assembly.

“This task is neither quick nor easy: It demands commitment on the part of all. If in the past, omission may itself have been a kind of response, today we desire conversion, transparency, sincerity and solidarity with victims to become our concrete way of moving forward,” Gonsalves said.

The Indian bishops established procedural norms for dealing the sexual abuse of minors in 2015, strengthening the standards two years later.

These guidelines were made in light of the main legislation on sex abuse passed by the Indian Parliament: The Protection of Children from the Sexual Offenses Act of 2012 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay and President of the CBCI, was named by Pope Francis to the organizing committee for the February 2019 Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse; the cardinal also serves on the pope’s council of cardinal advisors.

Gonsalves knows Gracias well, since she is a principal of a school in the Archdiocese of Bombay, in addition to serving on the safeguarding committee.

RELATED: India cardinal mounts strong defense of ‘zero tolerance’ on abuse

After her presentation, several of the bishops asked Gonsalves what concrete steps should be taken to tackle abuse.

She listed several necessary actions the bishops should take: Zero tolerance towards sexual abuse; to take necessary disciplinary action against offenders; to respond with compassion and care for victims of sexual abuse; to take care and to address critical component of prevention; to constitute an appropriate mechanism with necessary infrastructure and time bound procedure to redress cases of sexual abuse; and to not shield any instance of abuse from prosecution by civil authorities.

“What is important is to communicate to those who suffered sexual abuse of any kind that they are free to approach the civil authorities,” Gonsalves explained.

“Approaching the ecclesiastical authorities does not close the doors to approaching the courts for redress. That is a right which every Indian citizen has. No attempts must be made to shield the perpetrators of sexual misconduct not should the victims be in any way dissuaded from approaching civil authorities,” she continued.

Gonsalves emphasized to the bishops the traumatic effects abuse has on the victims.

“Children who have experienced abuse and neglect are therefore at increased risk for a number of problematic, developmental health, and mental health outcomes,” she said, mentioning in particular learning problems, poor peer relations, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Abuse victims undergo depression, a sense of shame, and a continuous guilt feeling,” she said. “Almost 95 percent hate God. They keep wondering to themselves: Where was God when I was abused? So, their spiritual life too suffers.”

In addition to establishing a child protection policy and compliance mechanisms at every Catholic institution, the nun said bishops should commission an audit of these systems every two years, establish an internal enquiry committee to look into allegation, and establish a Survivor Advisory Panel at diocesan level.

Such panels have been used by the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission of England and Wales.

The role of the SAP is to ensure that the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission in England and Wales receives appropriate and timely information and advice from the perspective of survivors, so it can inform safeguarding policies, procedures and practices.

Members of the SAP addressed the PCPM in 2018, and according to a communiqué issued at the time, their contribution would be used “to develop effective ways to integrate the voice of survivors into the life and ministry of the Church.”

Gonsalves concluded her remarks to the Indian bishops by saying “transparency and accountability is a must to the faithful.”

She called on the bishops to “act immediately” when an abuse case is reported.

“Do not worry about protecting the name of the diocese,” the nun said. “The safety of the vulnerable is most important.”

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