ROME – Representatives of some of the world’s leading advocacy groups for survivors of clerical abuse met organizers of Pope Francis’s closely-watched anti-abuse summit Wednesday, although the pope himself did not take part — an absence to which some participants objected.
“Pope Francis wasn’t there, and we made it very clear that wasn’t okay,” said Peter Isley, an abuse survivor and cofounder of the “Ending Clergy Abuse” network, who took part in the meeting.
“Scicluna told us, ‘I’m not the pope’ after we asked him questions at the end,” Isley said, referring to Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, one of the summit organizers. “And we said, that’s the problem. If he’s talking to bishops about what sex abuse is, he should talk to us.”
“We’ll tell him,” Isley said.
Francesco Zanardi, an Italian victim and founder of Italy’s only network of clerical abuse survivors, agreed.
“We were a little disappointed, because there were certain points when the pope should have been there,” he said after the meeting.
Zanardi praised the “relaxed atmosphere” of the session, but added, “In our eyes, the Church has no credibility.”
Other participants were more willing to give the pope the benefit of the doubt.
“The pope is doing what he can, so I call on bishops to do what they have to do for this to be successful,” said Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean victim.
“The bishops cannot continue getting it wrong because as it is, the Church is on borrowed time,” Cruz told journalists.
Phil Saviano, a survivor who worked with the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team and now is part of “Bishop Accountability,” said he wasn’t especially concerned that the pope was a no-show.
“Meeting the pope wasn’t on my list of priorities for this week,” he said.
Saviano said he thought the meeting “went very well,” and that the participants all had a chance to speak and have free discussion, which he told Crux, Vatican officials were “very engaged in.”
Survivors also used the meeting to push Church officials to honor their vows of transparency.
Saviano presented a letter to Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, a former Vatican prosecutor on sex abuse crimes and a member of the summit’s organizing committee, asking the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to release information on defrocked priests.
“I call on the Vatican to release the guilty priests’ names and release their bishops’ vota, with full documentation for each of these criminals,” Saviano wrote in his letter, which was released to the media in advance.
“Do it to launch your new era of transparency. Do it to break the code of silence. Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children,” he wrote.
Afterwards, he said Scicluna responded “quite positively” to his letter and said that he was in agreement with the him and would even go further than his suggestions by “doing away with the papal seal that is keeping documents from being public.”
Saviano said he believed that if the Vatican were to take such a step, it would “catch the attention of Catholics around the world who are already leaving a sinking ship and maybe help them hang on longer.”
Zanardi handed Church officials a 36-page dossier on Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan, who has been accused of covering up a clerical abuse case when he served as the vicar general of the archdiocese.
“We await results,” he said.
Pedro Salinas, a former member of the lay Catholic organization Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV) and co-author of the book “Half Monks, Half Soldiers” documenting years of physical, psychological and sexual abuse inside the institution, was also present at the meeting and was the only participant who was not a victim of sexual abuse.
Salinas, who is currently being sued for defamation in Peru by an archbishop who’s a member of the SCV, told Crux he believes he was invited because of his role in investigating the scandal and for having been a member “of this sectarian organization” where various forms of abuse run rampant, with little oversight from ecclesial authorities.
From the beginning, “the role of the Church has been an embarrassment,” he said. “In the case of the Sodalitium, it’s been pathetic,” Salinas said, adding that Scicluna was taking careful notes as he spoke.
“I felt listened to with a lot of attention,” he said, adding that he and others participating pitched the idea of creating a global truth commission within the Church with authority to investigate and hold members accountable.
Roughly 12 survivors and advocates participated in the meeting, which was held at Rome’s Maria Bambini Institute just across the street from St. Peter’s Square. The group represented different types of abuse, different parts of the world, and also has experience with both clerical and lay abusers.
Members of the summit’s organizing committee who took part included Scicluna, a former Vatican prosecutor on sex abuse crimes and a leading reformer; Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago; Father Federico Lombardi, a former papal spokesman; and German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who heads the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University.
Though Church officials, up to and including popes, have met abuse survivors before, those sessions sometimes have been criticized on the grounds that the victims were hand-picked by the Church and didn’t have profiles as people likely to push back against what they heard. What was considered striking about this session is that the victims who took part represented some of the world’s most outspoken advocacy groups.
Cruz served as the link with the summit’s leadership, and he worked to put the session together for some time. A survivor of ex-priest Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most infamous abuser-priest, he’s been in regular contact with Scicluna since he was sent by Pope Francis to investigate the situation of the Church in Chile last year.
Cruz was one of three Karadima victims who met with Francis in May, before the pontiff encountered the entire Chilean bishops’ conference in Rome. Cruz will also be heard by all 190 participants when the summit kick-starts on Thursday, as he’s been asked to share his story in a video.
Spaniard Miguel Angel Hurtado was also part of the delegation. He’s a leader of the organization Infancia Robada [“Stolen Childhood”] and was recently featured in a Netflix Spanish documentary called “Examination of Conscience,” looking into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
“It’s been an honest meeting, we didn’t bite our tongues. We said things as they are,” he said.
Hurtado said the survivors had different attitudes coming in, but at the end, they agreed on the fact that what’s needed is a “global plan, with specific measures, with a calendar.” If the Church had acted when it first learned about the problem, he said, abuses such as his, which took place in 1998, could have been prevented.
Outside the Maria Bambina Institute, British abuse survivor Peter Saunders, a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, challenged claims that the clerical abuse crisis is primarily about homosexuality in the priesthood.
Saunders did not take part in the meeting with summit organizers.
“There is absolutely no link between people who are gay and people who abuse our children,” Saunders said. “The majority of people who abuse are heterosexual males.”
“The problem of homosexuality…is a red herring,” he said.
Juan Bayas from Ecuador, another survivor who was not in the meeting but was on hand outside, told Crux he was abused from 2006 to 2009, between the ages of 16 and 19. His abuser would tie him up, he said, blindfold him and electrocute him.
Bayas said his abuser was removed from the priesthood last year, but the prosecutors in Ecuador dismissed a criminal case due to “lack of evidence.” On Tuesday he went to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith hoping to obtain the file used to remove his abuser from the priesthood, but was denied.
He believes the solutions given by the Vatican so far are “decadent” because they’ve been mere words.
“Zero tolerance with abusers and those who cover up has to mean zero tolerance, not a prayer, and apology, and let’s move on with our lives,” he said.
As survivors were talking to the media, Alessandro Gisotti, director of the Vatican’s press office, spoke to journalists about the latest meeting of the council of cardinals that advises the pope. He told reporters that the first “follow-up” to the Feb. 21-24 meeting will be an encounter among organizers, heads of Vatican departments and specialists on the protection of minors on Monday.
He also said he’d spoken with American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and a leading voice on the Church’s response against abuse. After the list of speakers for the summit was announced on Monday, many questioned why O’Malley wasn’t included.
Gisotti said that’s a question for organizers, but that O’Malley had told him that he’s “happy” to collaborate in the meeting that was proposed by the council of cardinals after a suggestion from the commission.
The body, created in 2014 by Francis, has the scope of identifying loopholes when it comes to the protection of minors and suggest solutions, but its mandate does not include putting these into practice.