ROME— At a time when the Catholic Church’s overall commitment to fighting clerical sexual abuse, and particularly Pope Francis’s commitment, is being questioned in many quarters, one of his closest advisers insists the pontiff is “all in.”
“Let there be no doubt about it: Pope Francis is thoroughly committed to rooting out the scourge of sex abuse in the Church,” said Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
O’Malley’s words came as he was opening a workshop on protection of minors at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University titled: “Safeguarding in Homes and Schools: Learning from Experience Worldwide.”
On the other hand, an Australian Catholic expert said that the absence of abuse survivors at the Gregorian meeting was worrying, and could be seen as part of a pattern of the Church drowning out the voices of victims.
“We can’t afford to let that keep happening,” said Francis Sullivan, coordinator of the abuse response of the Australian bishops. The fact that among the many speakers there weren’t any survivors sends a very powerful message to me: We still haven’t gotten it.”
O’Malley said he’s convinced there’s no turning back on the Church’s efforts.
“Let there be no doubts, no other topic is more important for the life of the Church. If the Church is not committed to child protection, our efforts at evangelization will be to no effect; we will lose the trust of our people and gain the opprobrium of the world,” he said, quoting remarks he’d given to newly appointed bishops last year.
The cardinal said that sexual abuse of minors is neither a Catholic nor a clerical problem, but a human one.
“However, when abuse is perpetrated by a priest, the damage is even more profound,” he said.
The scope of the conference was to hear the voices from the global scene, including presenters from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Australia and Italy.
“Today, as we gather in this great hall, together we represent a truly wide diversity of groups and individuals working around the world on a common goal, to make our Church a safe home for all,” O’Malley said.
Some of Pope Francis’s closest cardinal advisers were present at the event, including American Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican office for family and laity; Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development; Brazilian João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.
The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, arrived late in the morning. However, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which handles cases of clerical abuse, was not on hand.
In recent weeks, Müller clashed with Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, after she singled out his congregation, known as the CDF, as one of the reasons behind her decision to resign from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Sullivan said a priority moving forward has to be “stepping back and allowing the voices of victims to be completely heard, and allowing their experience to start determining our future, not try to control it.”
Sullivan said that he was at the conference because his experience in Australia shows that unless Church leadership fully appreciates the depth of the damage the scandal has done to the credibility of the Church, and to its future effectiveness of its ministry and mission, then the institution as a whole will fail at understanding what’s happened.
Seminars as the one being held in Rome, Sullivan said, must profoundly understand the degree of disenchantment, and even simmering rage, that the Catholic community itself feels as a result of the sex abuse scandal and about the fact that it happened in the Church.
“It’s torn the very nature and heart of what the Church is about,” he said.
However, in his opening remarks, O’Malley said that all the best programs and practices will be to no avail if victims aren’t put first.
Guaranteeing that victims/survivors continue to have a “powerful voice in our work and help to guide us,” he said, will be a central topic during the Commission’s plenary session, taking place this week in Rome.
It’ll be the first time the body has met since Collins’s resignation.
Speaking about the pontiff, the prelate said that Francis is often called “the reformer pope,” but it’s usually linked to changes in the structures.
“Our Holy Father reminds us that we must first talk about the reform of hearts – about true conversion. This is our task today. It is not something that will be achieved overnight,” he said.
The day-long workshop held on Thursday was organized by Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Center for Child Protection of the Gregorian, headed by Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, also a member of the papal advisory group.
Zollner told Crux said that the event was organized because “education is key to prevention.”
He called for the empowerment of young people, and said the Church has to work with parents and families for increasing the awareness, sensibilities, and competence.
This is “a huge opportunity” to see what is being done in Latin America, which is “very important for the Catholic Church” yet often ignored in the Anglophone world, “particularly the media.”
His hope is that the exchange will allow for a deeper understanding of what still needs to be done, and the sharing of best practices.
O’Malley shared the task of opening the conference with Father Friedrich Bechina, Undersecretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Kathleen McCormack, chair of the working group from the papal commission dedicated to education of families and communities on the protection of minors.
As Bechina noted, the Catholic Church, through thousands of schools around the world, is currently educating 60 million children who attend Catholic schools, plus six million young adults attending Catholic universities.
“This is a great responsibility,” Bechina said. He noted, however, that sexual abuse is not a “Church problem,” but a human one: “Wherever there’s a great concentration of children,” he said, “there’s also a greater risk.
The knowledge that sexual abuse of minors spreads beyond the realms of the Church, however, doesn’t mean that those organizing it are giving the Church a clean bill of health. As McCormack put it: “We’re here today because the Catholic Church has a problem.”
This problem, as she referred to it, has become “the subject of public scandal and government investigation since 2002 in the United States, England, Ireland, Canada, Belgium, and most recently, in Australia.”
Oftentimes, it has been seen by some as a “Western problem,” but as the different panelists noted, it’s a global issue.
According to Mónica Yerena Suárez, who works for the Marist brothers in Mexico, in her country there are 600,000 sexual crimes a year, with four out of ten victims being under the age of 15. Half of these crimes, however, are committed in the home of the victim, and in 60 percent of the cases a family member is responsible for the abuse.
According to Father Wilfredo Grajales Rosas, from Bogota, Colombia, an average of 43 children a day were abused last year. Juan Ignacio Fuentes, from Argentina, told Crux that one in 13 boys and one in five girls is sexually abused before reaching adulthood.
Yet as Sullivan said, “Sure, it may happen in other institutions. Sure, it happens in families. But the fact that it happened in the Catholic Church says something about the corruption of the Catholic Church.
“We have to come to terms with that cancer,” he said.