ROME – Denise Buchanan, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse and advocate for fellow victims, has said she was disappointed in the handling of the issue during last month’s Synod of Bishops on youth, and that a lack of a unified consensus is thwarting any progress that could be made.
With some bishops making vocal apologies for the Church’s failures and others trying to downplay the problem, depicting it as a mainly Western issue, it’s clear that prelates “don’t know what to do,” Buchanan said.
Speaking to Crux over the phone from Los Angeles, she said that when the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment came to a close, “it ended with a whimper because there was no agreement on a lot of the issues they had on their agenda,” particularly clerical abuse.
“That’s very telling,” she said, “because if you have factions within global groups, within the Vatican and the Vatican hierarchy that are fighting with each other, how can there be any consensus, how can there be any way to move forward?”
In terms of Pope Francis, Buchanan said in her view, he seems to take several positions and it’s not always clear where he stands.
“Sometimes he’s really looking at making a difference in ending it, accepting resignations, calling to task certain bishops, but then on the other hand at the end of the youth synod it pretty much sounded like there was no problem. So, it’s hard to understand exactly what his position is.”
A Founding member and Global Coordinator for the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Buchanan in 2013 authored the book, Sins of the Fathers, detailing her experience of being raped and impregnated by a priest at 17 and how she eventually found hope after the trauma.
Through ECA, she works closely with abuse survivors, using her dual PhD in psycho-neurology and integrative health and therapy to assist victims of sexual abuse in moving forward.
Also working closely with the organization is Chilean abuse survivor José Andrés Murillo, who suffered abuse at the hands of the recently defrocked priest Fernando Karadima, and who in May met Francis as part of the pontiff’s ongoing efforts to clean house in Chile, where abuse scandals continue to be revealed almost daily.
The organization recently sponsored the Nov. 3 “All Survivors Day,” in which some 37 cities around the world, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, rang church bells at 3:00 p.m. in a show of support and solidarity with victims of sexual abuse, whether they were abused by a priest or someone else.
In her comments to Crux, Buchanan said the issue of clerical sexual abuse is more widespread than most in the Church want to admit, with new survivors coming forward daily.
Referring to how prelates from Asia and Africa in the synod downplayed the severity of the abuse issue as largely irrelevant for their social and cultural contexts, Buchanan said the evidence suggests otherwise, as her organization has been contacted by victims of clerical abuse in Africa who want to come forward.
Buchanan said ECA is currently part of an investigation launched earlier this year into abuse allegations in Africa, and they are working with journalists on the ground to uncover the stories.
“We’re getting information coming in fast and furious,” she said. “During the youth synod some bishops from Asia and Africa said, ‘Oh, there’s no problem here.’ We know there is a huge problem in Africa…We know that there is an issue there and it is coming to light, and we have people there who are giving us really horrendous stories.”
For the moment, ECA is focusing on just one country in Africa, assuming that once the story breaks, more will follow. She said there’s no clear idea of when the investigation will end, but “it just takes one country to be brave enough to put forward a report, and then everything else just naturally occurs.”
Part of the problem, Buchanan said, is the transfer of problematic priests, many of whom are assigned to so-called “treatment centers” before being put back into ministry.
Located in countries around the world, including Africa, such centers offer some sort of help but with no clear treatment plans, she said.
“I’m a doctor, so when I give a patient a plan it’s very specific, but we have no treatment plan coming out of these institutions that these priests are being sent to for rehabilitation, so we wonder how credible these institutions are,” she said.
Many priests accused of abuse “get moved to the continent of Africa. There are many countries where they can get lost,” she said.
While she could not disclose the number of victims who have come forward from Africa so far, “just consider how many were uncovered in Pennsylvania, and that’s just one state, and we’re talking about Africa, which has many, many countries.” [Note: There are 54 independent states in Africa.]
In terms of Church reaction to the crisis, Buchanan said “apologies are spewing out,” but that is not enough. “Justice needs to be had, you need to put these people on notice, there need to be prosecutions. The bottom line is you need to remove these priests from ministry.”
Though recently many bishops have taken steps to address the issue, publishing names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in their dioceses, she said the move is reactive, and instead of taking steps after being caught, bishops must stop the abuse before it happens, beginning with internal structural reforms and outside investigations.
Buchanan pointed to a Feb. 21-24, 2019 meeting Francis has convoked with the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences to address the abuse issue, voicing hope that progress will be made and that prelates attending will be open to suggestions from those who work in the field.
She said she herself and other representatives from ECA will be present in Rome at the time of the meeting, “speaking out and putting forward our recommendations, because this has to end.”
“We can work together to make it, but they have to be willing to at least see us as credible contributors,” she said, adding that the main message they want to get across is to take concrete steps so “no child goes through what we went through…it’s a very simple message: let no child be harmed by anyone in the Church. It’s so simple.”
“These are people that are supposed to be standing for goodness and God’s grace and kindness, and they’re the ones who are raping our children? No!” she said, adding that “if the Church is a place where you cannot feel safe, then humanity is pretty much lost. It’s our goal to have that turned around.”