Expert says too many laity ignore abuse crisis because ‘it doesn’t affect them’

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ROME – When it comes to addressing the clerical sexual abuse, the role of the laity is central, according to experts.

However, according to one of the Colombian lay women at the center of the country’s bishops’ response, too many people avoid addressing it, because they don’t think it is a problem that affects them.

Ilva Myriam Hoyos, former Colombian attorney general for children, adolescents and family, is the head of the bishops’ working group for the protection of minors.

“We are obliged to act when we have knowledge of violence against a minor, but the reality is that there is still a certain indifference, an attitude of leaving the problem to someone else because the issue ‘does not touch me directly’,” she told Crux.

Crux spoke with Hoyos about what the church in Colombia is doing to address the clerical abuse crisis, including the errors made by the bishops, the laity, and the media. What follows are excerpts from the hour-long conversation.

Crux: How did you start working on the issue of abuse prevention?

Hoyos: I am a lawyer, a doctor in law, very much linked to academic activity. I was dean of the Faculty of Law at the Universidad de la Sabana and director of the Institute of Humanities. And at the same time, I have always been linked to the church. 

In what way? 

I began to advise the church on issues of life, family and religious freedom in 1992, representing the bishops’ conference in various activities, such as interventions before the Constitutional Court or Congress. In turn, this led me to work with the nunciature, and Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, at the time, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. I also had the privilege of participating in the Latin American assembly in Aparecida and in the Synod of the Family in 2014. 

On the other hand, in 2009, I assumed the national position of attorney general for children, adolescents and family. The eight years in this position led me to know the reality of childhood and adolescence in all its spheres, where I had to work on very complex issues related to sexual violence against children, as well as that of armed groups. Then we began to combine issues that were no longer just about life, but really linked to abuses.

Ilva Myriam Hoyos, during a Zoom lecture organized by CEPROME, the center for child protection of Mexico’s Pontifical University. (Credit: Facebook CEPROME.)

When eventually the first allegations of abuse arose, I was still consulting, and though I was not the lawyer for the church, I did give advice on legal matters. And in 2018, when the bishops’ conference began to notice the urgency of these issues, I was summoned for an extraordinary assembly, where I presented a bit of the legal panorama, in particular a sentence of the Supreme Court that determined the civil liability of a diocese. That is when the national prevention council was born, and I was appointed president of the council.

You mentioned that in 2018 the church summoned you for an extraordinary assembly of the bishops. Was there an event that caused that turning point? It came well after news of the situation broke in the United States, Ireland, and Australia. 

Let’s say that there had already been some alerts because of cases that were presented and that had some repercussions in the media, and also because of the decision of the Supreme Court. Just to be clear, I do not want to say that before 2018 nothing was done by the church in Colombia to address this crisis. For instance, the guidelines came out in 2014. But it is also true that it was a particularly important topic on the agenda of the bishops’ conference, as it has been in recent years in all the assemblies.

In your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by the hierarchy when dealing with cases of abuse? 

I don’t doubt the good intentions of the bishops, but sometimes I think they don’t have enough knowledge about these issues. Many mistakes have been made in the normative interpretation of both canon law and state law, and with a mentality of not speaking about these issues, of working in a very silent and silenced way. This has been breaking down little by little, but it is still a difficult subject to deal with. On the one hand, it has been very difficult to establish a common work methodology, and it is very difficult to know what the situation is in relation to the issue of church abuse in Colombia. 

Among the errors, there is the issue of the obligatory nature of communicating the allegations to civil authorities, and this not only on the part of the bishops, but also of the lawyers who advise them, with a “formal” response. By reason of a concordat of 1974, the church has total autonomy, is “protected” from legislation. Today there is at least an intention to work on the issue and to be advised. 

Another shortcoming is the lack of qualified personnel, as well as funds, to deal with these issues, particularly in the smaller dioceses.

In your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by the laity in Colombia when dealing with cases of abuse?

We have to take into account that Colombia has a very accentuated issue of violence of all kinds: political, economic, sexual violence. But we must understand that violence is preventable, and that has to be our starting point. It is not something natural, but to some extent, it has been naturalized.

We are obliged to act when we have knowledge of violence against a minor, but the reality is that there is still a certain indifference, an attitude of leaving the problem to someone else because the issue “does not touch me directly.”

Even when we were forming the council at the bishops’ conference, there were people who said no, not only because it is something ad honorem, but also because it is an issue that marks a person a lot: It is a difficult issue.

On the other hand, we do not have associations of victims, or people who can give them a voice, and make the problem visible in the media, with few journalists even touching the issue of church abuse locally.

If a victim in Colombia wants to make an allegation at the ecclesiastical level, are the ways to do so that are clear and publicly known? 

I would say that we have advanced at the national level, but it is still necessary to work at the diocesan level, with informative, pedagogical work. In relation to the steps to make allegations, not all the dioceses have an office yet, and when we go out to the field, we visit the dioceses, we see that there is still a lot of misinformation. 

But if there were [a good diocesan setup], at the level of the local citizen, there is a lot of misinformation on the subject. For this reason, one of the projects for the next semester is training, particularly in the cities where we have noticed that there is a higher level of violence, not only among the clergy, but among society as a whole.

You are part of the Latin American council dedicated to the prevention of child abuse by the clergy, in a way initiated by CEPROME, the prevention center of the University of Mexico. How important is this networking in addressing the problem?

It is truly providential. We have really created a family dedicated to prevention and training, but we rely on each other, we collaborate, we share best practices. The training courses we have launched and the publications we have produced are truly an important contribution of the Latin American church to the universal church.

On the other hand, there is a lot of complementarity among us, we are laymen and priests, but particularly, we are several women. And knowing that there are few of us working on the subject, because there are many who, as I told you, prefer not to get involved, it is good to know that we are accompanied.

This teamwork, already consolidated, allows us to serve the church by promoting respect for human dignity and demonstrates what a structure of good treatment means.

You speak a lot about the apostolate of prevention. What is this?

It’s actually an idea of Pope Francis, which he used in two messages he sent to CEPROME. It is clear that we all have to get involved when it comes to prevention: the state, society, the church. The church has to comply with all the parameters established by law, standards and indicators … in addition, the church has to prevent, from a different point of view. And it goes beyond recognizing that it is a violation of human rights, that it is a problem of public policy. We have to assure them with a superior vision, because we are church. And because we are church, our action is not that of an NGO; it is an apostolate, a service, a speaking truth, a commitment to give ourselves. 

This apostolate of prevention is an act of love, an act of giving, of donation. This apostolate has to lead us to admit that although we have challenges and limitations, there is something more, and we have to give this witness of faith, to present it in such a way that no one wants to be excluded from this love. Good is diffusive, as the classics used to say. We have to spread this.

We are apostles, and as such, we have a grace, a gift, an opportunity to serve, and the service to the victim, to the victimizer, to the community and to the church has to be hopeful. Ours is not simply a human rights policy, nor is it one that only talks about sanctions. Having a policy of prevention is not enough.

I think the church has to be aware that the mission of the church is evangelical and, obviously, to announce the good news. But it also has to give the good news around these issues. Recognizing the dignity of people comes from the fact that we are children of God, which has to make our work even more demanding than what is required in civil society.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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