Members of the Vatican’s commission for protecting young people in the Church have been listening to victims and survivors of abuse in Rome, while also pointing out they have no remit to investigate individual allegations of abuse.
The 9th ordinary plenary assembly of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was set up by Pope Francis in 2014, took place Sep. 7-9.
“Members began by listening to two testimonies of people who were affected by clerical child sexual abuse, a victim/survivor and the mother of two adult survivors who were abused as children. The Commission thanks them for sharing their stories with us, for the courage of their witness and for contributing to the learning process,” said a communique issued on Sunday.
The statement also said they spoke about the “the recent developments in the global church that have negatively affected so many people including victims/survivors, families and the community of faithful,” most likely referring to the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on clerical abuse which contained allegations of around 1,000 separate cases of abuse committed by over 300 priests over the past 75 years and the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had a “credible and substantiated” allegation of abuse lodged against him, leading to his resignation from the college of cardinals.
Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, the president of the commission, told Vatican News that the he always brought an abuse survivor with him when meeting Church leaders to emphasize the importance of listening to victims.
“Bringing the voice of survivors to the leadership of the Church is crucial if people are going to have an understanding of how important it is for the Church to respond quickly and correctly anytime a situation of abuse may arise,” he told the news service, which is a part of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication.
“We see particularly in light of the present situation how if the Church is unable to respond wholeheartedly and make this a priority, all of our other activities of evangelization, works of mercy, education are all going to suffer. This must be the priority that we concentrate on right now,” the cardinal said.
The statement also spoke of better cooperation with other offices in the Vatican, an issue cited by Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse, when she resigned from the commission on March 1, 2017.
However, the communique made a point of stating that the “commission’s starting point is not to investigate abuses; our starting point is to prevent abuses.”
“Sometimes people will introduce me as the president of the sex abuse commission. I always correct them and say, no, our competence is the protection of minors – it’s really prevention. We are not a body that deals with past cases or particular situations of abuse,” O’Malley said.
“We are trying to change the future so it will not be a repeat of the sad history, and we do that making recommendations to the Holy Father and promoting best practices and guidelines that take into account safeguarding, prevention, educational programs addressing the formation of leadership so that bishops, priests and religious will be aware of the seriousness of this and be equipped to be able to respond and put the safeguarding of children and the pastoral care of victims as their priority. So this is our thrust,” he said.
O’Malley came under fire earlier this year when it emerged that his secretary didn’t give him a letter from a New York priest detailing the accusations against McCarrick in 2015.
The priest said he was told his allegations didn’t fall under the purview of O’Malley’s office, and that the priest should forward it to the appropriate Vatican department.
O’Malley has since said he has “modified” the procedures of his office so such an oversight doesn’t happen again.
During last month’s World Meeting of Families, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said the commission “is not getting its teeth into where it should be.”
Martin said the Vatican commission is “too small” and “not robust enough” and that “puts all the pressure back on” Francis, which places him “almost in an impossible situation.”
The Irish archbishop said the pontiff “really needs a better, stronger and more robust team around him.”
However, in his interview with Vatican News, O’Malley pointed out that other Vatican offices deal with individual cases of abuse, including the negligence of Church leaders in sex abuse cases.
Since 2001, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has had responsibility for dealing with cases of sex abuse of children and vulnerable adults; while several different offices could have competence into looking into allegations of negligence by bishops, depending on the particular situation.
“Our commission cannot be held accountable for their activities. We have our competences which I think are very, very important … An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our job is about prevention and trying to make the Church the very safest place possible for our children and vulnerable adults,” the cardinal said.
Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the head of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, is a member of the commission for the protection of minors.
He told Katholisch.de, a German Catholic news service, that institutions of all kinds need clear guidelines and clear definitions of responsibilities, along with ongoing training on intervention and prevention to foster a culture of awareness of child protection.
“It must be normal and natural to think of all activities – in the parish, at the school, during leisure time – as times when children and adolescents should be safe,” said Zollner. “This is not an ‘add-on’, it’s the DNA of the Church, which embodies the core of the Church’s message, and to do this requires a wholehearted willingness to address issues openly and address them with vigor and decisiveness.”
The Jesuit said there has been “an inability and unwillingness” to follow the law – both of the state and the Church – which has been “fuelled by a fear of confrontation and making difficult decisions” as well as a “very harmful” tendency of “over-identification with the institution” when dealing with abuse cases.