ROME—When it comes to the protection of minors from clerical sexual abuse, one of Argentina’s foremost experts on the issue says the laity have a key role to play if the institution really wants to say, “never again.”
Ines Franck, the coordinator of the abuse prevention commission of the Archdiocese of Paraná, one of the first such commissions in Argentina, said that the bishops in Pope Francis’s homeland are growing in their awareness of the scope of the crisis, and that many are committed to solving the problem, and not just sweeping it under the carpet.
Crux spoke with Franck over the phone Feb. 20. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: How did you start working in the Archdiocese of Paraná?
Franck: I live in Buenos Aires and work at the Pontifical Catholic University in Buenos Aires, that has a headquarters in the city of Paraná. Since 2005, I travel every fifteen days to teach there, so by now it’s almost my second home. I always had a dialogue with the former bishop, Cardinal Estanislao Karlic, and now with [current archbishop] Juan Alberto Puiggari.
Paraná has some cases of priestly abuse, with some being in jail. For that reason, I became interested in studying the subject, trying to understand what was happening and what the Church had done globally.
In early 2017, Puiggari proposed to me the idea of creating and coordinating a commission for the protection of minors in the archdiocese. I am a lawyer, I studied politics, canon law, and now I am finishing my psychology degree.
The objectives of the Parana abuse prevention commission were and are limited, but there is much to do with its three objectives.
Firstly, the training of all pastoral agents: Priests, seminarians, movement leaders, parish workers, catechists. We want them to have a training similar to that in the United States with the theme of safe environments: What is abuse, what are the causes and consequences of abuse, how to detect abuse, how to prevent it, how to act in the face of abuse. And we also taught the laws in Argentina, where since 2005 when one finds out about a crime of this type, it must be communicated to the child protection authorities. It is not necessarily a criminal complaint, but it should be pointed out to the authorities so that they do what they have to do. I wanted to make sure everyone knows this is the law: If there is a suspicion, they have a responsibility to say something.
The second objective was communication: To be a channel for anyone who has something to report, either a past or ongoing abuse. They can talk to any of the three of us, who are laypeople. And that is also an important fact: The commission is made up only of laypeople. This report from the victims is the most difficult, for obvious, human reasons. If a person suffered a type of abuse within the church, it is understandable that they do not want to talk to us; some do, others do not, so it’s a more artisanal work.
The third objective is to advise the bishop when he asks for our help.
The commission in Parana started in 2017, 15 years after the 2002 crisis in Boston, but in turn, long before other dioceses in the world. Is there an awareness of the fact that the abuse crisis is a global problem and not just one in Anglo-Saxon countries, as many said at the time?
Clearly. Speaking from the Argentina case, beyond the case of Father Julio Grassi, most allegations began to erupt between 2010 and 2012. Of course, the abuses began before then, but only then did they begin to garner media attention; so in our case, it’s been impossible to label it as an Anglo-Saxon problem at least since then.
When a bishop tells me that he has no cases, no allegations in his diocese, on the one hand, I say good, but I always acknowledge that to me, that is strange.
Could the lack of cases be due to the fact that victims and survivors are not yet ready to speak?
The definition of abuse, the concept that is handled today, is quite broad. It is not only the crime of rape, but the improper touching, online harassment. This accurate broadening of the meaning of abuse, and seeing that it’s a crime that affects not only men and women in the Church, it is difficult for me to argue that there is no case of abuse in any given place.
I do not fully know all the dioceses of Argentina, but the way abuses are being denounced now, I think it is because there is more awareness of what abuse is, more from victims being being heard, both in the church and in society as a whole, and when it is revealed that it is a unfortunately wide phenomenon, more and more victims know that they are not the only ones. They are aware that someone committed a crime against them and that it is, unfortunately, much more frequent even than what we thought some years ago.
This does not mean that it is easy for a victim to report abuse, quite the opposite. It is a very intimate thing that one has to tell, very painful and that leaves many scars. But at least, it is no longer as taboo as it was a few years ago, and there is awareness that a complaint can stop a person and prevent them from hurting another minor. One can decide not to report, or that they don’t want to go out in the media or go through a trial, and that must be respected. But there is also an awareness that the abuser can be stopped. Unfortunately, it is a crime that most of the time is not reported.
And in turn, in most cases, it is denounced decades after the fact …
And this has a psychological explanation, especially if the abuse occurred when one was very young or an adolescent, because one may not have the words to say it or fully understand what happened, but the effects are there. There are more conditions to be told, I think the media also understand more the importance of protecting victims and respecting their decision.
You are also working at the national level, with the Argentine bishops’ conference, in order to confront this crisis, and also in some way responding to the pope’s call of zero tolerance and no more cover-up …
Yes. And another important measure of the recent pope is the decision to lift the pontifical secret to collaborate with justice. These measures of the Holy See, and the February summit of last year with the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences of the world, made many people aware of how widespread the problem is and the impact it has on the credibility of the church, and with all the reason in the world.
Perhaps the Argentine bishops, I see that they are becoming more aware. I do not deal with everyone, but they are calling me – more and more dioceses – to give talks to the clergy for training and formation. I do not say that they would not take the problem seriously before, but they are more aware of the seriousness of the matter, and also that there are national and international standards that are good, that they have to know and put into practice. It is an awareness that, I hope, is given worldwide.
Bishops can no longer use the excuse that they did not know how to act.
No, never again. Surely, in some cases it was true. Sometimes Pandora’s box was opened, and prelates were not trained to deal with these issues, but now they are being trained. Some are more committed than others, but in dioceses where there are cases, they are increasingly becoming aware of the need for commitment to deal with the issue, and the need for transparency, to help and accompany the victim.
And transparency is with the victim, but also with the rest of the faithful. Because one may not have committed abuse, but a person in the environment has been abused, and one wonders what is happening. Obviously, in the middle of a process there are things that cannot be communicated, but the truth must always be communicated.
As a laywoman who works with this issue so much, do you ever wonder what are you still doing inside the Church, or did your faith feel put to the test by this crisis?
No, because my faith is not placed in the men of the church, but in God. Obviously, it generates a lot of pain and sadness, anger at times, but also a commitment to help the victims, to help the Church. But the victims have also been part of the church, many remain, they are sheep of the flock and we also have to watch over them.
The pain that has been generated within me was accompanied by a huge commitment to act so that we can really say, never again. In fact, I am still studying to be able to have some competence to do something. Because it is a complex problem.
I know that people, including bishops and priests, are human beings, with their talents, their shortcomings, bad and good things. I have known really good people among priests and bishops, even saints, but they are still human beings.
What is the role of the laity?
On this subject they are fundamental, for many reasons, not in order of importance. First, we usually have a set of skills that priests don’t. Either because we have a career or knowledge, or because we are parents. There is something we as lay people can contribute. I know cases in which the wrong decision has been made because there was no knowledge of law, no knowledge of psychology, no knowledge of communication. In the first place, the laity is the one with this knowledge.
Second, the layman is immersed in the middle of the world, with a direct reaction from the world and knows what the clerical society is waiting for. There are some priests who have this direct relationship, but there are some who do not.
Third, most of the abused are laypeople.
And there is also a question of perception: Those who are being questioned for their actions are the priests. The majority of the accused and condemned are men, they are clerics; so here women also have a central, particular role. We have a different sensitivity to the world, so our contribution to resolve the problem from its root is important.
Now, when I talk about solving the problem, I mean doing it seriously: Helping the victims, doing the corresponding processes against the defendants, and also if anyone has a pathology, a medical, psychiatric and pastoral intervention will have to be done with the defendant , because he is a human being and we cannot let him die in a square. But always with awareness that there is a victim and that is the one that must always be in the first place.
Your specialty, before you began focusing on the protection of minors, was bioethics. What led you to focus on this?
Working on this issue, I met several people who migrated from bioethics to prevention. In my case, there are many reasons behind this movement. One of them is the situation: This is urgent now. This doesn’t mean that bioethics isn’t, but right now this is urgent.
Also, the themes, without being similar, have a connection, particularly on sexuality. Sex education is one of the clearest ways for prevention, and sex education was always my focus within bioethics. One of the objectives of comprehensive sexuality education is the prevention of abuse.
And as I said, I am part of the Church, I love the Church as the mystical body of Christ. I saw a need to focus on this issue, that I could perhaps help, so I focused on it.
Many look at what the Argentine church is doing on this regard because, although it is a global issue, you work on prevention and the protection of minors in the pope’s homeland. Do you feel pressure for this?
No … Maybe I’m unconscious, but my conviction is that when you work locally, you can work well. As you devote yourself to the global aspects, you may lose some contact with reality. I am focused on Paraná. The work at the bishops’ conference itself is different, because it is not so much on the ground, which is what I like. I focus on the concreteness of what I can handle.
I pray for Pope Francis, but I let him worry about the Universal Church!
I am in a diocese that has seen several cases, so we have a lot of work, but we also have good dialogue with the bishop, with the people in ministry and also with some victims, which allows us to help from this perspective as well.
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