[Editor’s note: This is part one of Inés San Martín’s interview with Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, one of the Church’s leading reformers on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. Part two will appear on Monday.]
ROME – Big things come in small packages, and such is the case with Archbishop Charles Scicluna, of Malta, who, despite his diminutive size, has a huge reputation when it comes to addressing the issue of clerical sexual abuse of children.
Formerly the Vatican’s top prosecutor of abuse crimes, Scicluna today divides his time between Malta and Rome, where he serves as adjunct secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Since 2001, that office has had lead responsibility for cases of clergy accused of abusing minors.
Credited with the investigation that exposed the crimes of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ, last year Scicluna was hand-picked by Pope Francis to look into the situation of the Catholic Church in Chile, where seven bishops who’ve been accused of either cover-up or of abuse themselves have resigned.
Speaking with Crux just before Francis convenes a Feb. 21-24 summit of presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world to discuss clerical abuse, Scicluna addressed widespread frustration over the fact that to this day, there are still bishops who don’t understand the scope of the problem.
“We have to realize that there are constraints and circumstances of culture, geopolitical, social and ecclesial that mean we’re not at the same point in different parts of the world,” he said.
“This meeting is not going to be a three-day wonder, solving every problem we have in the book, but [it’s still] a very important exercise,” he said.
Speaking with Crux on Thursday, Scicluna also discussed accountability, the situation of the Church in Chile, the role women play in the fight against abuse, and the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Why is this summit being called? What do you hope will come out of it?
The initiative comes from the Holy Father… He’s gone on record what he meant when he had this convocation, asking the presidents of the bishops’ conferences to come to Rome. He mentioned three points on the plane coming back from Panama. If I have to summarize them, I would say awareness, getting to know what to do and then praying together.
I think it’s a very powerful sign to bring the leadership of the Church together discussing a specific point. Whatever you call it, a meeting, a synod, it is the leadership of the Church coming together in one place, with the Holy Father presiding.
It is the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences, we’re talking about the leaders of the Oriental churches, the major religious congregations and the curial leaders. We’re talking about some 200 people, getting together in one room with the Holy Father, discussing a topic, which should be top on the agenda, and it is the safeguarding of our young people, making the Church as it should be, a safe place, preventing abuse, and when abuse happens, criteria for good governance.
Because I think this is the main purpose. That is why we’re talking about responsibility, accountability and transparency.
Why those three topics?
Because this is about governance, about the way we exercise our stewardship, our leadership. And it’s basically saying that our stewardship is in a context, and the context is communion and co-responsibility. And that is what synodality means: you walk together, but you’re accountable. You’re not above the law. You don’t hide things, that’s why it has to be transparent.
And then also, you’re a steward, you’re responsible for your flock. It’s not “yours,” because when Peter is entrusted with the flock, Jesus says “feed my sheep,” a very important statement. “My sheep, my lambs.” They’re not ours, there’s no need to be possessive about it. But you have to give an account. The more you’re entrusted, the more will be expected of you. And this is the principle of accountability that Jesus explains to Peter in Luke, chapter 12.
Does it frustrate you that there are still bishops who don’t understand just how widespread the problem is?
Yes and no. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel and understand the differences in culture and in attitudes. If you’re an IMF executive, you know that the economy is not the same everywhere. Even if you expect high standards, you won’t find the same everywhere. And I think that this is also true for important matters in the Church. We have to realize that there are constraints and circumstances of culture, geopolitical, social and ecclesial that mean we’re not at the same point in different parts of the world.
One of the major aspects, and as a lived experience, it’s to bring the leadership from these different cultures and these different points in the globe together in the same place, listening to the same input, being able to also respond, express frustrations and expectations, is something that has not happened yet.
You have the United States’ experience, which I think is, in all honesty, an experience in good practice, because the wave struck in 2002, we’re talking about 17 years ago, and we have other places in the world where we still need to change the culture that impedes disclosure.
I remember listening to Cardinal Chito Tagle at a symposium organized at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2012, in which he gave an input about the cultural response to sexual abuse in Asia. And one of the things emphasized was that there’s a culture of shame that protected the person’s privacy, the dignity of the family, especially the extended family, and this is something that conditioned disclosure: people are traumatized but they do not talk about their trauma because this sense of shame is also a defense mechanism, that defends their privacy and also their dignity in society. It’s a stigma to be known as a victim.
These are cultural aspects that will certainly need time to develop into a different attitude. So, this meeting is not going to be a three-day wonder, solving every problem we have in the book, but a very important exercise in which we come together.
Follow-up will be of the essence. That’s why the Holy Father has asked the organizing committee to stay in Rome for two days after the meeting and discuss follow-up. And I’m sure that’s something that we’ll have to continue.
You need to engage the Roman Curia in talking about the follow-up in the short term, the midterm and the long term.
Shouldn’t you have found a way to include more women in the process, even granting this is a meeting of the hierarchy?
Your point is a valid one. We’re talking about leadership in the Church, and without being in sacred orders [ordained into the priesthood] women are in the leadership of the Church. I understand that the main leaders of the superior generals are going to be represented, there are female speakers who are going to give their input to the bishops.
At the end of the day, when it comes to the follow-up and prevention on the ground, the bishop will need to join forces with so many women who are leaders in the Church, in the local churches, even on a national and continental basis.
I think your comment is important because we cannot ignore the fact that the maternal instinct that is a guarantee of safeguarding and care has to be not only promoted but also empowered.
And that means that leadership has to be a leadership in communion, with one’s people. I am archbishop in my own archdiocese, Malta, and I delegate all safeguarding investigations to lay people, most of them women, who are experts in different social sciences: psychology, law, welfare, investigation. And I find that their wisdom and care are an extraordinary gift to our church and our safeguarding policies.
The fact that women are not part of the “boys’ club” often means they’re not tempted to defend the club, meaning, more often than not, women weren’t professors or students of those accused of abuse, neither mentors nor proteges …
Most women in leadership in the Church I know don’t want to go around wearing clerical habits. They are interested in moving together as a pilgrim church.
So yes, I think that guarantees a sort of distance, and at the same time, it also guarantees a certain standard of care for the victims and even for the perpetrators.
[In part two of his Crux interview, Scicluna discusses the McCarrick case and the press for greater accountability not just for the crime of clerical sexual abuse, but also the cover-up.]