ROME – For Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, Australia, the clerical sexual abuse crisis unfolding throughout global Catholicism hits especially close to home given the drama that’s unfolded in his country in recent years, including a Royal Commission report on the Church’s failures and criminal charges of “historic sexual offenses” against Cardinal George Pell.
With his background, it might have been a shock that during the recently-concluded Synod of Bishops on youth, which came on the heels of multiple revelations and allegations of abuse around the world, not all of his fellow prelates felt the same urgency, resulting in the omission of a firm apology and a collective commitment to a “zero-tolerance” policy in the gathering’s concluding document.
A member of the 12-member committee charged with drafting that document, Comensoli said part of the reason was because not all areas of the world are on the same page about the severity of the abuse issue.
“Certain parts of the Church in the world are [just] coming to understand what it means to take a position of zero tolerance, and the synod is a reflection of the Church throughout the world,” Comensoli told Crux.
“It’s not just Australia, it’s not just the United States, it’s not just Germany, or Chile or where the manifestations of abuse have been most intensely felt,” so the final document had to take this into consideration, he said.
For Comensoli, a universal understanding of just how widespread sexual abuse is in the Church and the scarring effect that it has on victims is still a work in progress, one that begins with recognizing the phenomenon of abuse and the various dimensions it has in different parts of the world.
On the other hand, he said it’s also a question of reassuring Catholics that their leaders believe and listen to those who come forward about abuse, and that they’re committed to finding ways toward healing and justice while at the same time dealing with the perpetrators.
“Those are things that other parts of the world are still coming towards, and that’s part of the challenge of trying to find words that are universal, not just particular to Australia or the United States,” he said, “so coming to the right sort of language that can be acceptable for everyone was part of the challenge.”
“Particularly for me in my context, zero tolerance is an absolute, and I’ll certainly go back to my own people to talk about this and say that no matter what has been said in terms of the final document, how we operate in the Diocese of Melbourne is that any form of abuse – from its very early stages in grooming [victims] through the horrors of physical activity – is not to be tolerated at all,” he said, adding that he intends to deal with any cases that come up with both canonical and civil processes.
Though the ways in which abuse is manifested throughout the world are different, “that doesn’t mean that abuse isn’t happening,” Comensoli said.
“It is happening, it needs to be dealt with, and it needs to be dealt with thoroughly and, in my language, that’s zero-tolerance. But how that gets dealt with in other parts of the world, where there are still learnings to be done, there are still understandings to be made about the nature of the abuse and how that plays out.”
Clerical sexual abuse and the response of Church leaders had been a major talking point throughout the month-long synod discussion from week one, with many prelates and youth speaking out about it.
Though the gathering was directed at young people and their involvement in the Church, Comensoli said “something needed to be said (on abuse), absolutely.”
Some bishops also felt the synod wasn’t the right venue to address the topic, and that it was better left to a Feb. 21-24, 2019 summit with the presidents of all bishops’ conferences, called for by Pope Francis two weeks ahead of the start of the synod.
Comensoli sympathized with the final point, saying “it’s important to recognize that the work that will happen in February with the special gathering of heads of bishops’ conferences that the Holy Father has asked for.”
On the drafting process of the final document, Comensoli also debunked rumors that a text had already been “floating around” before the committee even began its work.
“I can absolutely confirm that that was not the case,” he said, adding that in his view, those responsible for summarizing the discussion in texts that were presented to the drafting commission “were genuinely taking into consideration what was being said on the floor of the synod and in terms of the small groups that were putting forward propositions.”
“These were ways in which we wanted to give expression to what was important. So, it wasn’t just amending a former document, it was what does this synod want to say,” he said, and pointed to how at the beginning of the gathering, Francis said the Instrumentum Laboris, the original working document for the synod, had “to be martyred.”
Referring to paragraph three of the final document, which many have interpreted as saying the final synod document had to be read in tandem of the instrumentum, meaning the two built off of one another, Comensoli said this is not the case, and that what the paragraph actually says is that “there was a certain complementarity and a certain distinction between the two documents.”
“On my part, the final document is the one that really matters. I think I would hold the position that the Instrumentum Laboris was a document that needed to die. It was helpful to get us on the way, but it needed to die and something else has arisen from it,” he said, recalling how on the synod floor he had jested that “we do not need a Frankenstein.”
Looking forward, Comensoli said that when he goes back to Australia, he hopes to put the synod’s discussion into action in concrete ways within his diocese, the first of which is trying to increase the presence of young people in the local Church in Melbourne.
“How does the Church in Melbourne become young? How does it become young such that it is a young Church that speaks to young people? Not that it does young things, I don’t mean that, I don’t mean that it needs to change itself and somehow…in fact, our young people are not saying that. But how does the Church become young in the sense of Pentecost?” he said.
Other priorities, he said, will be an increased focus on ministry to families and helping local parishes to adopt concrete ways of reaching out to young people, leading them to a relationship with Christ and welcoming them into parish communities.