Expert: No system ‘will ever be perfect’ but Church abuse prevention is improving

Expert: No system ‘will ever be perfect’ but Church abuse prevention is improving

Professor Myriam Wijlens. (Credit: PCPM.)

According to one of the lay members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, it would be “naïve” to think that every case of abuse can be prevented, though much can be done to greatly reduce the number of cases and stop repeat offenders.

ROME— According to one of the lay members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, it would be “naïve” to think that every case of abuse can be prevented, though much can be done to greatly reduce the number of cases and stop repeat offenders.

“If we would expect that with all the guidelines we have in place we can prevent abuse 100 percent, we would be naïve,” said Dr. Myriam Wijlens of the Netherlands. “We cannot prevent it in the Church in as much as we cannot prevent it in the Scouts or sports. No system will ever be perfect.”

However, she told Crux in an interview, “we can, and I believe we do, learn to be more attentive, listen and see the signals better and thus improve our reaction. This goes for those in leadership as well as parents and other faithful in the church: we are indeed all more attentive. There is also a better culture that encourages victims to speak and report. The preventive measures will hopefully mean that abusers are not moved and that thus repetitive abuse may be prevented.”

Wijlens spoke with Crux via Skype from Australia, where she’s currently visiting several dioceses to discuss abuse prevention and help plan a chapter focusing on child protection at the upcoming Australian national plenary council.

What follows are excerpts of Wijlens conversation with Crux.

What would you say to those who are contemplating further formation in abuse prevention and the protection of minors and vulnerable adults?

It is extremely important that we keep working on prevention and become aware of the protection of children and vulnerable adults. I think it’s equally important that we keep on top of best procedures and practices with regard to reporting abuse, both within the Church and to State authorities. Once guidelines are in place the challenge will be to make sure that they are implemented and regularly evaluated in order to see if adjustments are necessary. There really must be an internal disposition to be willing to learn continuously.

The problem of clerical sexual abuse has been making headlines for decades. How frustrating is it for you that there are people who still need to be reminded that this is a global, institutional problem?

I have been confronted with abuse since 1987 and have been working in this area for more than 30 years. I observed that in the different countries where I’ve lived, each one moves more or less along the same path, but with a different pace. At times I wish that one country could learn from another, but that seem to be very difficult. The pace is not only determined by Church leadership, but also by the other faithful, who are not always willing to talk about abuse and acknowledge it. This can be frustrating for victims because they are, therefore, not always able to speak about their experience: For victims to be able to speak they need to have the intuition that they will be believed by the community and its leadership.

I’ve worked in different parts of the world and became aware that the context also determines whether people can speak. If Catholics live in a minority situation and are thus much more dependent on each other it is more difficult to speak, because if you are not believed you risk being dismissed by that community. I live currently in Eastern Germany, that is in the part that used to be under the communist regimes. Catholics there formed a minority of three to six percent of the total population. It was extremely difficult to speak, because by speaking out victims would risk not being believed by the community and thus also risk the protection of that faith community which they needed in that political system. Also if you live in a small community, how are you going to continue to live in this community if the community does not want to “hear” the story? This is then not only a problem in relation to the leadership of the church but also in relation to the community.

Nevertheless, I have the impression that at least in some parts of the world it is easier today to report, also because there is a system in place for reporting and there are guidelines for those who receive the report to respond adequately. Hence, I hope that in the countries where things are only now beginning to come out, the struggle will not be as difficult because there is a structure in place, while in the countries where the cases first began to arise, there were no structures in place, and in most cases, victims did not even know whom to contact then.

How has being a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, that has members from all over the world helped you understand the crisis at a global level?

Working in such an international commission, with people who come from many countries but also disciplines and expertise, you get a different awareness of the complexity of the issue. You also get a different awareness of the different cultures. Some of the members of the Pontifical Commission report that in their countries, physical abuse against children, such as slapping them in schools is still in practice, while in my country this was outlawed, banned, criminalized, so this too is very different. To hear these reports has made me aware of the challenge to address the abuse in a Church that is global.

For me it has been an eye opener and very enriching. It also shows that the Holy See can issue norms, but these norms are to be applied within the context of where the people live. For example, two weeks ago I was in the graduation ceremony of the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University in Rome. There were some graduates who reported that when they return to their home country, they will begin by addressing the physical violence against children.

You’ve been dealing with clerical abuse since 1987. Has this ever made you question your faith?

The reports on abuse really touched me. I have classmates who have been convicted and gone to prison. As a canon lawyer, I have had colleagues who have been convicted. It is really quite something to learn after all these years that some in the leadership were aware of the abuse and did not take the proper measures to stop it. This has been really hard.

On the other hand, I was very lucky to grow up in a part of the Netherlands where we have a very strong faith, but where we differentiate between the need to have certain offices in the church and the one who holds that office. I had to learn that office holders, including bishops, can make serious mistakes and wrong judgements. I came to see the frailty of some office holders, but in a way it doesn’t affect my faith, because my faith is not dependent on the holiness of the office holders. I have been fortunate to grow up with such a faith. Had I not had this, I might not have been able to persevere in this.

It’s been a year since the summit last year, and some, including Father Hans Zollner, have acknowledged that much has been done but much remains to be done. What do you think is still in the to do list?

Many things have been done. An example is the lifting of the pontifical secret in sexual abuse delicts. This was very important not only because in English the word “secret” has a very negative connotation. Secrecy is not helpful in these matters, whereas confidentiality is of course to be guaranteed otherwise many victims would not come forward or one would risk that they might be victimized again. Hence, no secrecy, but certainly confidentiality.

Also I think that progress is being made in the awareness that the sexual abuse of minors is not just a moral failing but that it is also a civil law crime and a delict that needs an appropriate reaction. So far, however, the focus still lies with a delict against the sixth commandment or – as it is called in the law for the Eastern churches – a delict against chastity. A further step would be to see the abuse as a violation of the dignity of another person. If we could see the delict from that perspective, then we can also begin to reflect on the role a victim (or his/her legal representative) could have in a penal procedure. Currently, they can only participate in some specific procedures. There would seem to be room for improvement in this domain.

Then there is the question of accessibility of jurisprudence. In each penal trial the accused must have an advocate. It is wonderful that a recent decision by the Holy See implied that the court can now admit lay persons as advocate without having to get a dispensation first. That is a step forward. But there is still the question of accessibility to jurisprudence. It would be wonderful when the lifting of the pontifical secret implies accessibility to the jurisprudence. The accessibility is of relevance for three reasons: It touches on the exercise of defense as well as on the equal distribution of justice, and it strengthens the trust of the people in the penal trials and thus in the church.

The jurisprudence would reveal how, for example, the use of alcohol by a perpetrator impacts the question of imputability. It may be that he is an alcoholic or that he consciously got himself drunk to diminish his faculties. Or, he might have given alcohol to the minor before he abused him either to intentionally diminish the resistance of the victim or because they were getting drunk without such an intention. Jurisprudence would reveal how these different aspects impact the culpability of the accused in a penal trial.

The publication of the jurisprudence could also secure that similar actions are penalized in a similar way irrespective whether they occurred in diocese A or B. It would also help to know how different criminal actions within the area of abuse are penalized. The civil criminal courts differentiate, for example, between abuse actions with very young children and older children or between abuse that involved rape or watching child pornography. At present, this jurisprudence is not available. Oftentimes the argument is used that this is not possible as the persons involved need protection. Indeed and of course confidentiality for victims is a prime responsibility, but it would seem that the writing of sentences in which the confidentiality is preserved can be learned. Indeed the ecclesial judges might learn from judges in the criminal courts in states. Hence a balance must be found between the protection of the identity of the victim – hence a need for confidentiality – and the possibility to secure an appropriate right of defense of the accused.

You are saying that for the same crime, the penalty isn’t the same?

We don’t know. We don’t have access to jurisprudence. We do know that some people are dismissed from the clerical state, others not allowed to exercise ministry, others are only allowed to exercise ministry under specific conditions. But without access to jurisprudence, it is not possible to establish if this applies equally for something that happened 45 years ago or two years ago, or if the abuse happened once or several times, if it happened under the influence of alcohol or not, etc. Those are all factors that would need to find consideration in jurisprudence.

To the best of your knowledge, is someone working on this?

I think it would be worthwhile to begin this conversation.

You’ve been working on this for 30 years. Beyond some places where the crisis is really only now exploding, there are others, like in Australia, the United States, Germany, there are ongoing cases of cover up, not from 50 years ago, but that show wrongdoing today. How do you react when you learn of these cases?

If we would expect that with all the guidelines we have in place we can prevent abuse 100 percent, we would be naïve. We cannot prevent it in the Church in as much as we cannot prevent it in the Scouts or sports. No system will ever be perfect. We can, and I believe we do, learn to be more attentive, listen and see the signals better and thus improve our reaction. This goes for those in leadership as well as parents and other faithful in the church: We are indeed all more attentive. There is also a better culture that encourages victims to speak and report. The preventive measures will hopefully mean that abusers are not moved and that thus repetitive abuse may be prevented.

You said it would be naïve to think every abuse could be prevented. Would it also be naïve to think that the reporting system is in place globally?

One thing is to have good procedures in place, and another is to actually hold each other accountable for implementing those procedures. As it is with so many things, at the beginning people are alert, but if after a little while and when there are no reports, people might think this is not an issue anymore. So we have to be alert and take preventive measures, be careful. That will be a real challenge.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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