ROME – Concrete, effective actions and courage, not merely “simple condemnations,” is what Pope Francis said he’s expecting from a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on clerical abuse that opened Thursday morning.
The pontiff pointedly said this is what the People of God want, watching the 190 men and women meeting over the next four days in Rome.
Thursday’s opening session included several voices acknowledging that the Catholic Church has failed victims, and that crimes of sexual abuse of minors by clergy have been covered up by bishops.
“The Holy People of God are watching us and wait for more than simple condemnations, they expect concrete and effective measures. We need concreteness,” Francis said in a short opening speech.
Defining the abuse of minors perpetrated by men of the Church as a “plague,” Francis said he’d thought to reach out to presidents of bishops’ conferences, heads of the Eastern Churches and leaders of male and female religious orders so they can “listen to the cries of the little ones clamoring for our help.”
German Father Hans Zollner, director of the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University, read a quote from an unnamed survivor.
“Not my parents nor ecclesial authorities heard my cry,” Zollner read. “And I ask myself, why is it that not even God heard my cry?”
The morning session that opened the much anticipated summit was live-streamed, with the exception of the pre-taped witness of five victims from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the United States and Asia.
The lineup included a short opening speech from the pope, two longer talks and a series of prayers. The encounter was multilingual, with people speaking in English, Spanish and Italian.
The Vatican released the text of five abuse survivors who addressed the participants, keeping their identities hidden. The first, however, is well known, as he had told the media he’d be a part of the presentation: Juan Carlos Cruz from Chile.
“You are physicians of the soul, and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” Cruz said.
Yet Cruz defended the work Pope Francis is doing in the Chilean church to address a decades-long crisis, one which led all the country’s bishops to submit their resignations en masse. Eight have been subpoenaed by civil authorities to testify on either charges of abuse or cover-up.
A survivor from Asia, unclear if it was a man or a woman, spoke about being sexually abused over 100 times, which, this person said, has created “traumas and flashbacks all across my life.”
The person said that after going to provincials and superiors of the religious order of the abuser, they covered up for the perpetrator, adding, “That kills me sometimes.”
If “we want to save the Church, we need to get our act together,” the person said. “This act [of abuse] will destroy whole generations of children. And as Jesus always said, we need to be child-like and not to be child sexual molestors.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila in the Philippines compared the response of bishops to the clerical sexual abuse crisis to the apostles’ betrayal of Jesus and their doubt about the resurrection until Thomas touched the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side.
“How can we profess faith in Christ when we close our eyes to the wounds inflicted by abuse?” Tagle said.
“If we are to give authentic and credible witness to our faith in the resurrection, this means that each of us and our brothers and sisters at home must take personal responsibility for bringing healing to this wound in the body of Christ,” he said.
According to Tagle, President of the papal umbrella charity group Caritas Internationalis, the Church must “see that children and vulnerable people are safe, are cared for, in our communities.”
The prelate also said that Jesus’ wounds remind us that wounds are often inflicted by the “blindness of ambition and misuse of power, which condemned an innocent person to die as a criminal.”
Tagle called on the Church to “reject any tendency” that refuses to see and touch the wounds of others: “Those wounded by abuse and the scandal need to be strong in faith in this moment,” he said.
“If we are to heal victims and all those wounded by the crisis, we need to take seriously their resentment and pain,” Tagle said.
His presentation was followed by a behind-closed doors Q&A session.
“We in the Church should continue to walk with those wounded by abuse, building trust and asking forgiveness, fully understanding we do not deserve that forgiveness in the order of justice,” Tagle said, adding that only mercy and grace can supply it.
Walking with the victims, he argued, does not mean that bishops and superiors cannot reach out to the perpetrator too, helping them face the truth of their actions without “rationalization, and at the same time not neglecting their inner world and their own wounds.”
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former Vatican prosecutor on sex abuse crimes and a leading Catholic voice on the protection of minors, was scheduled to speak next.
In a piece published on Wednesday, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli argued that this week’s summit is destined to leave a mark.
“Even before a deep consideration of indispensable concrete indications of what to do facing the wounds of abuse, the awareness on the part of the entire Church of the dramatic and irreversible consequences for minors who have suffered abuse will leave a mark,” Tornielli wrote.
Scicluna’s talk was centered on how bishops and religious superiors can prevent abuse, and how they should respond when it happens.
His recommendations included mandatory reporting to civil authorities, noting that beyond Church rules, priests and religious must also abide by civil laws. He also called for careful screening of candidates to the priesthood, and said that concealing information on the leadership ability of a candidate to become a bishop is a “great sin against the Church.”
“The faith community should know that we mean business,” he said. “They should come to us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth…. We will protect them at all costs. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”
Scicluna quoted extensively from two letters Pope emeritus Benedict XVI addressed to the bishops and the people of Ireland in 2006 and 2009, including praise of survivors who’ve spoken up and also a call for the “transgressions” of some priests not to obscure the “fine work and selfless dedication of the great majority of priests and religious.”
Editor’s note: This story will be updated.