ROME – A Vatican commission created by Pope Francis to advise him on the fight against sexual abuse now is looking to repair its relationship with victims and to “go forward” in order to lend its expertise and resources to the outside world, according to a recently appointed member.
Last week, the Vatican announced that Francis had confirmed seven members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and appointed nine new members, some of whom are former victims of sexual abuse.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), is an advisory body to the pope on the issue of safeguarding minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse.
The first phase of the commission, before its recent renewal, had “many moments of reflection,” according to Ernesto Caffo, a newly appointed member as well as founder and president of Telefono Azzurro, a non-profit organization in Italy aimed at protecting children.
Most of these points of reflection regarded the commission’s relationship with victims, Caffo said in an interview with Crux, which was an important point of departure and necessary to set the goals and approach of the group.
According to Caffo, who also teaches child neuropsychiatry at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, it’s “hugely important” to give victims “a greater voice” in the future work of the commission.
Looking forward, he believes that the commission and the Church as a whole are reaching a point of maturity, where they can be “a model” in terms of involvement in this issue. The goal is to find in the Church “a source of strength” that can offer its knowledge and expertise to the world.
This was clear, he said, at a Rome conference last October on the “Protection of Minors in the Digital Age,” which drew experts from all over the world to team up with the Church and acknowledge it as a valuable partner.
This was a “novelty,” he said, and a confirmation that the Church has the potential to bring people together on the issue of child protection.
What are the key words for the commission as it enters its 2.0 phase according to Caffo? “Faster, more active and more visibile.”
The following is the full Crux interview with Ernesto Caffo, which took place Feb. 22.
Crux: What’s your reaction to this appointment, and, with your experience with Telefono Azzuro, which is such a point of reference in Italy for protecting the rights of children, what contribution do you hope to make to the commission?
Ernesto Caffo: As a psychiatrist, I’ve always studied the subject of violence against children, in terms of both research and formation. For many years, I directed a second-level course on sexual violence and pedophilia at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, which for a long time was the only university course on those subjects.
Several years ago, we organized, together with the Holy See and the support of the Bambino Gesù and the presence of Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a conference at the Italian Senate with international guests to sign a charter, the “Charter of Rome,” against sexual abuse. It was the first time it had been addressed, and we put together other conferences, so within a few months the number was twelve, in which this charter was copied.
You probably know we’ve worked hard in this area over many years, and we worked with the Gregoriana on its scientific conference last October. Here too, the themes are ample, including all of infancy …
By the Gregorian, were you referring to the conference on the digital world and minors?
Yes, exactly. I was on the scientific committee for the conference, which involved “We Protect” and Telefono Azzuro. As you know, that conference was opened by [Cardinal Pietro] Parolin and closed by the Holy Father. Father [Federico] Lombardi also had an active part in this work, which allowed us to put people together from different academic disciplines throughout the world who deal with the theme of sexual abuse and threats to infancy, as well as pedophilia. We tried to bring science and awareness to questions that are growing ever more apparent.
There was also a presence of other religions, and this led the way to an interreligious conference in November in Arab states, precisely to build on this momentum from the Catholic Church for the protection of infants and minors. This is to explain how this effort developed over the years to respond to the pain and the suffering of the victims of abuse and has led to many steps forward and to many concrete responses.
In this sense, I think that the role of the commission today is very important. The first phase of the commission had many complex moments of reflection, trying to get to the bottom of things, and to take seriously the indications of victims but not just that. Today, the question is how to go forward, how to have a global vision, that looks also at models of prevention, models of formation, and models of more effective intervention with victims, that will allow us to find a series of responses that are ever ampler beyond the mandate of the first phase. That’s what I think was the reason for the increase in the commission, adding eight new members, in order to continue down this path.
It’s also important to develop even more effective ways of hearing from victims, perhaps giving them a greater voice, which remains hugely important, in part to deliver a message to the outside world as well. For example, opening with an initial meeting with victims is important for reinforcing this mission, so that their suffering becomes the point of departure for building models of prevention and intervention for everyone.
You’re saying that after a period of reacting to a series of internal dynamics within the Church, the Church is now ready to offer its support also to the outside world, developing models for the whole world?
Exactly. I think this was the signal that has been building over the last several months. The conference of Rome was itself [such a signal], where the work done had that sense that the Church, based on all the work its done, can be a model for other groups, other countries, other cultures. What’s matured within the Church can be a model for a proposal for a much more open involvement [in this effort], after a first moment of defense and internal reflection.
I believe that today, notwithstanding the fact that there’s still a need for internal reflection, it’s time to look ahead, and this model [from the Church] can be important to offering responses and solutions. I think that’s the path they see for the commission, which is especially important for countries which, many times, are at greater risk, such as Africa and Latin America, where the reflection hasn’t yet matured. That’s not just true of the Church, but of the whole society, and with respect to this subject, institutions haven’t yet caught up.
The Church today, with its legacy of dealing with the sufferings of infancy, can make a contribution, not just with regard to sexual abuse but other forms of suffering and disorder. The commission was born for the purpose of protecting minors, not only from abuse, but from hardships and exploitation of all kinds. It would make sense for the commission to want to give its best effort for the future.
You mentioned the inclusion of victims of abuse in this commission. How should this decision be read?
There are two components. First is the desire of the victims themselves to be heard and listened to. For instance, I know that ONLUS has developed similar procedures [an Italian children’s charity]. The question of the relationship with victims has to be constant. In recent years, there’s been a stable relationship between victims and the Holy See … I’m not just speaking of Australia [and Pope Benedict’s meeting with victims], but other occasions. It’s a matter of listening, of understanding.
The role of victims in the work of the commission is important because it keeps present the idea of starting with the concrete, people’s real suffering. I think that here too, the victims can help us look ahead, asking how their experience can help ensure that there aren’t other victims, for ensuring that similar situations don’t occur as they happened in the past. I think this is a positive aspect and characteristic of the commission, or at least that’s my hope. I know there’s been much discussion about victims, about how to recognize them. That’s a very important thing, because the victims are our witnesses and our guarantee for the future.
Let’s talk about next steps. What can you tell us about the goals this commission wants to achieve?
I believe that everything will depend on the strategy developed by the commission, and what Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley [of Boston, president of the commission] has in mind. The central element I see, in terms of the strengths of the commission, is the awareness it has of the various elements of the problem, in terms of research and formation and so on, in various sectors of the world of today, and that’s the basis for a series of responses that we have to identify in terms of prevention, formation, the selection of persons involved with children and adolescents in various parts of the world.
The arenas of education and social life need a lot of attention, because that’s where contact with children is made, to be of help in their development and their capacity to avoid every form of abuse that occurs in obscurity. What’s needed are ‘best practices’ for intervening in the most difficult situations, where in various parts of the world children are victims of suffering and exploitation.
The idea is to find in the Church a source of strength, so that it can be a promoter of rights and wellbeing, making that present in all parts of the world and offering concrete instruments and responses. If you think about the number of schools, of hospitals, the Church has today, it can become even more in some ways an ‘advance force’ in defending infancy.
Let’s say that in my opinion, this is what the commission wants to promote, building on the work that’s been done and reaching out to other people who can collaborate. In the hours since my appointment, I’ve heard from many people, people who are enthusiastic about collaborating in this type of effort. It reinforces the idea of the Church as a point of reference, for facing new challenges.
This seems to me a novelty, like what happened in the October conference. We brought together the best people in the world we know, without asking anything, and they left enthusiastic about continuing to work together. It was a confirmation that the Church has this potential of bringing people together and developing ideas, and that’s exceptional.
It would make me happy if the Church can be a sort of terminal for this work that’s being done throughout the world on behalf of children, and also collect the input coming from victims, from adults to infancy, so that the commission has on offer the best support possible.
I do think we need to move at a faster pace than in the past, and the effort needs to be more visible, more active, in offering instruments to people working in this field in places such as favelas, in the situations of greatest risk in our world. I think we have to be attentive to those situations that are usually hidden, and also in the new digital realm, because there are great issues there of exploitation and other difficulties for children.
This needs to be an occasion for a new stimulus and reflection, not just about pedophilia but other themes too, such as exploitation on the web. All these themes were present in the Declaration of Rome adopted last October, I think everything has to go in that direction, building on what already exists and looking at all the realities out there, working in every sector.