ROME – As the Italian bishops’ conference debates this week how to best address the clerical sexual abuse crisis and the calls for a nationwide investigation, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, head of the papal commission for the protection of children, told them that the only way forward is with the truth.
Speaking from experience, as he has spent much of the past 40 years addressing the scandals, O’Malley said, “We have nothing to fear by telling the truth. The truth will set us free. Acknowledging people’s stories of abuse, listening to survivors and committing to working together is not easy,” but “it is the only way.”
The Italian bishops are meeting this week for their general assembly. On Tuesday, they elected Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna as their new leader, and local observers have pointed out that his five-year term as head of the conference will largely be interpreted by how he deals with this issue, which hasn’t yet garnered the attention in Italy as it has in the United States, Australia, Ireland, or Chile.
“No part of our world is exempt from dealing with these issues,” O’Malley said. However, he argued, seeing the “experience” of the church in Italy, the bishops have a “unique opportunity to develop an honest and non-defensive dialogue with all those involved at the national and local levels, who are willing to undertake a constructive process of review, of reform, and of reconciliation.”
“As you chart the way forward, the history of abuse in our church will come into the light more and more,” he said in a video message released Wednesday. “This has been a normal process in every country where we have seen this happen.”
Though committed to the truth coming out globally, O’Malley also said that looking back and reporting on what happened “is not the same as making a judgment on what happened in the past, especially about who made mistakes or who was also caught in an imperfect situation.”
“Sexual abuse has always been wrong, for sure,” O’Malley said. “But how pastors have dealt with these accusations, while inadequate in some cases, should not be seen through the lens of what we know today.”
The Boston cardinal has led the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since it was created by Pope Francis in 2014. The video and the text of his remarks were released by the commission.
The bishops began their meeting May 23, as organizations that monitor clerical sexual abuse in Italy advocated for an independent study into the abuse scandal in the Italian church.
Though some prelates have voiced tepid support for this proposal, others want a study to be conducted by the conference’s office for child protection, working with its diocesan counterparts, and some want it to be limited to the cases reported and handled recently.
O’Malley shared with them the trepidation he felt as he was headed into his first meeting with abuse victims and survivors, saying that he remembers the gathering well: “It was contentious and full of disappointment and anger, not only about the sexual abuse perpetrated by some priests, but about the way it had been handled, the way people had been ignored in their suffering, and the way the history had been erased. It was one of many meetings that I have taken part in over the years.”
From these encounters, he said, he has come to “appreciate some fundamental insights,” including the fact that “we will be judged on our response to the abuse crisis in the church.”
O’Malley also advocated for a “pastoral conversion,” that has to include effective pastoral care of victims; clear guidance (and vigilance) on training courses for staff in the diocese; adequate and accurate screening; removal of perpetrators of abuse; cooperation with civil authorities; careful assessment of the risks existing for priests guilty of abuse once they have been removed from the clerical state; and public verification of the protocols in place so that people know the policies are working.
Where these effective policies have been adopted, he said, the number of cases is dramatically reduced.
He also told the bishops that “an audit and report on the implementation of the policies is very useful,” pointing out that Pope Francis has asked the commission to do a yearly review of what is being done globally to protect children and prevent abuse.
O’Malley also said that after decades of experience, he is still learning how to address this complex issue, and that sometimes, “and perhaps rightly so, it seems there are no adequate steps we can take to make things right for those who have been abused.”
“It is perhaps the most difficult part of being a pastor: knowing that our listening and our efforts at healing and justice will likely fall short of what survivors are looking for,” he said. “It’s a sober reminder that ultimately, only God’s grace can make whole what sin has broken.”
O’Malley closed by saying that it is “highly likely that there are some among your priests who were abused by members of the clergy as children or perhaps in their seminary years,” and this is something that cannot be overlooked.
“The reality of abuse is always close to all of us, unfortunately, whether in our families, our communities or, yes, even in our church,” he said.