ROME — Very few people in the Catholic Church, at any level or in any place, have a deeper experience of the clerical sexual abuse scandals and the broader effort to promote child safety than American Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a former president of the St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a key adviser to virtually every anti-abuse initiative in the Catholic Church.
Thus when Rossetti speaks, people tend to listen. He’s part of the scientific committee organizing an Oct. 3-6 summit at Rome’s Gregorian University on “Child Dignity in the Digital World,” and he’s got a clear message about what would constitute a serious commitment from the Vatican coming out of this high-profile event: Boots on the ground.
“You need people doing this 24/7. People who are actually collaborating with UNICEF, with the United Nations, with Interpol,” Rossetti said.
He said one logical place for such a dedicated team within the Vatican to be located would be the Secretariat of State, typically the Vatican’s main policy-setting organism, because, among other things, “it’s international,” meaning that it deals with global diplomacy.
Rossetti spoke to Crux on Oct. 4, during the Gregorian conference.
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On other fronts, he said:
- The Catholic Church has a commission straight from Christ himself to make child protection a priority: “That’s because of what Jesus said about the importance of children, and how it’s better for a millstone to be thrown around his neck and thrown to the sea rather than harm a child. We have an obligation, straight from Jesus, to protect children. And why is it that we have not been leaders on this front?”
“This conference is the first case that I have seen where the Church has now become a platform for bringing together all of these resources and say, ‘let’s work together and solve this problem,'” Rossetti said.
- There’s a risk that with the passing of generations in the Church, lived awareness of why this is such a critically important issue may be lost: “Those of us who started working with this in the 80s and 90s can’t take for granted that the new generations will understand what happened,” he said. “There’s a whole new crop for bishops.”
- Although he’s basically confident the Vatican will do the right thing in the case of a papal diplomat recalled from Washington after being flagged as a possible suspect in a child pornography investigation, it needs to say more about what’s happening and why: “I know they’re investigating it, but they need to say something,” he said. “Especially Americans, we expect some sort of statement. We don’t expect the Vatican to speak about the details, because it’s being investigated. But we do want to know ‘yes, it’s being investigated, yes, we’ll prosecute this as appropriate, and yes, we’re taking it seriously.’”
The following are excepts from Crux’s conversation with Rossetti.
Crux: Where did the idea to do this conference come from, what’s its importance, and what is unique about it?
Rossetti: I’m very excited by the conference hosted by the Gregorian’s Centre for Child Protection. I’m on the scientific advisory board. I think that one of the things that is unique about this thing is that they brought together civil experts from around the world. This is not just an internal Church event, but really a worldwide gathering of lay experts from around the world saying, ‘Let’s all get together and collaborate.’
What’s exciting for me is what I’ve been saying for years: the Catholic Church should be a leader on child protection, not trying to play catch up. That’s because of our mandate, of what Jesus said about the importance of children and how its better for a millstone to be thrown around his neck and thrown to the sea rather than harm a child. We have an obligation, straight from Jesus, to protect children. And why is it that we have not been leaders on this front?
This conference is the first case that I have seen where the Church has now become a platform for bringing together all of these resources and say, ‘let’s work together and solve this problem.’
Yes, there’s a Gospel mandate for the protection of children, and had the clerical sexual abuse scandals not taken place we would still be compelled to lead in this field. But they did happen. And for people like you, who’ve been part of the solution from the very beginning, that experience, as awful as it was, must be taken as a learning experience and become a motivating force for leading the world. Am I right?
Yes. And also, those of us who started working with this in the 80s and 90s can’t take for granted that the new generations will understand what happened. There’s a whole new crop for bishops. For example, when the charter was revised in the United States for the protection of children, which started with an apology, one of the new bishops said, ‘why should I apologize, I didn’t do it?’ What I said was, ‘What you don’t understand is where this came from, this came from decades and more of abuse. And we as a Church need to apologize.’
So, is there a shared ongoing consciousness about this issue? And what makes it so difficult is that it’s not just an idea you stick into your brain, it’s a change in the way you view and do things, it’s a conversion.
You’ve mentioned the wild cast of characters you have at this event. It is an impressive assemblage, and I always thought that the pope, the Vatican, Rome, does have this unique power to convene. Nobody says no to an invitation that is perceived to have the pope’s blessing, and we’re seeing that this week …
Well, we’ve talked about the Holy Father’s moral voice. And what’s needed, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin [the Vatican’s number 2], said this on Tuesday night in his opening remarks, that we need not only to deal with this from a justice and psychological point of views, but also from a moral point of view. He said, don’t forget the spiritual, moral aspect, because in many ways, child abuse is one example of the loss of a moral compass.
So the Church can be a neutral ground to bring people together, and it can also help provide that moral compass.
This isn’t purely a psychological or law enforcement question?
I think that one of the mistakes we make is to say, ‘Well, this is just the case of a few bad people.’ Well, partly so, but it’s actually a symptom of a society that is sinful. And these kinds of outrageous behaviors grow out from the sinfulness of all of us.
As somebody who understands the lay of the land, do the statistics we’ve heard in the conference so far catch you by surprise?
Well, it’s always shocking every time you hear them, and you think to yourself ‘Well, these are alarmists, it is not that bad.’ But it is that bad.
They weren’t the numbers from some professional advocacy group, they’re Interpol’s numbers?
Yes. When I made my own study in the U.S. with people who work with the Church, I asked them, how many of you have been sexually abused by anybody before the age of 18. The number I got was about 19 percent. Of people in the pews. And every time we run the numbers, we get the same alarmist resistance. The difference now is that this hidden cancer in society and around the world is starting to become seen, noticeable, visible.
The other thing, it’s from around the world. You look at the people in this conference, they’re from everywhere.
Would one headline fashioned to capture at least part of what’s going on here be ‘Shining a light on the dark web?’
Because the dark web, the term we use to refer to that huge realm of the internet that is deliberately designed to be anonymous and undiscoverable, it allows this thing to fester. And one of the statistics we’ve heard is that 80 percent of the traffic on the dark web is directed to child pornography, either production, distribution or consumption. Part of what you’re trying to do here, is for people to realize that, and get tools to address it, right?
Yes. I would say one of the things I’m starting to realize is that our resources as leaders, civil and Church, we have some resources, we do what we can, but in the end, it’s going to take a consciousness changing of the world, of the people, and it’s going to have to start from the families. An old statistic that was brought up here, but it’s been known, is that 80 percent of abuses take place within the circle of trust: family members, close friends of the family, neighbors.
So, where we have to start the prevention is in the family. The parents need to know, family members need to know, we need to raise consciousness within the family.
Participants in this conference will be received by Pope Francis on Friday, and we’ve been told that the idea is to present the Holy Father with an action plan. Can you give us a flavor of what might be in that action plan?
Well, I’d be just guessing … but I think they’re going to talk about a collaboration, of bringing together resources, of working together internationally. And I’m hoping that one of those things in the plan will be to ask the Church to partner with us, that in addition to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Church will actually have somebody working within the Vatican in this international collaboration.
The people who work with the commission have full-time jobs somewhere else, and they come over twice a year to advise the Holy Father…
You’re saying we need full-time people?
Yes, you need people doing this 24/7. People who are actually collaborating with UNICEF, with the United Nations, with Interpol.
And you see that happening within the commission?
I see it as a different body. They’d be working with the commission obviously.
In the Secretary of State, for instance?
Who knows? That would be the obvious place for it, since it is international.
Every time the Church raises its voice about child safety, there are some who’ll say, ‘we’ll listen to you when you get your own house in order.’ The most recent example of that is developing around this conference, because here we are, talking about the dignity of children in a digital world, while the Vatican is dealing with its own child pornography case, in the form of an employee of the Vatican’s embassy to the U.S., who was recalled after it was announced American investigators had flagged him as a possible subject in a child pornography investigation, and since that time, Canada has actually issued an arrest order against Monsignor Capella.
If someone gave you a version of that right now, what would you say you’re hoping the Holy See would do in this case?
Well, in my limited Italian, I would say sono d’accordo [I agree]. I have no doubt. I know they’re investigating it, but they need to say something. Especially Americans, we expect some sort of statement. We don’t expect the Vatican to speak about the details, because it’s being investigated. But we do want to know ‘yes, it’s being investigated, yes, we’ll prosecute this as appropriate, and yes, we’re taking it seriously.’
And you believe those things to be true, you’re just frustrated the Vatican hasn’t come out and said it?
Yes, that’s correct. One of the challenges for us as a Church is that we tend to be less than quick at sharing information.
The surprising thing in this case is that the parallel would be the situation with late Polish Archbishop Józef Wesołowski, former ambassador in the Dominican Republic. In his case, when he was brought to Rome, they did say all those things, so it’s puzzling that they didn’t this time …
The Vatican is a rather large organization, with an awful lot of offices, and the question of who’s in charge…
You think ultimately, that the right thing will be done, but that the information flow should be better?
Yes. My trust, as I understand, is that it’s being investigated, but tells us what you can. I would say that child pornography is recognized with the same seriousness as actually molesting a minor. That gives me hope that we’re not going to say, ‘oh these are just pictures.’ No, this is a grave crime, and you’ll receive the same punishment as if you’d actually abused someone.