ROME — Pope Francis encouraged members of the Focolare movement to remain open to and in dialogue with the world around them, and to be courageous in confronting problems within their community, particularly in regard to revelations of abuse.
“This approach of openness and dialogue will help you avoid every self-referentiality, which is always a sin; it is a temptation to look at oneself in the mirror,” he said in an audience in the Paul VI audience hall Feb. 6 with member-delegates taking part in the movement’s general assembly.
This self-referential tendency must be avoided by everyone in the church because being “turned inward on oneself,” he said, “always leads to defending the institution to the detriment of people and can also lead to justifying or covering up forms of abuse.”
“Instead, it is better to be courageous and face problems with ‘parresia’ (boldness) and truth, always following the indications of the church, who is a mother, a true mother, and responding to the demands of justice and charity,” he said.
The topic of abuse and safeguarding was part of discussions during the Focolare general assembly Jan. 24-Feb. 7. Co-president Father Jesus Moran Cepedano, who is responsible for moral and disciplinary issues for the movement, was scheduled to give “an ad hoc intervention” during the general assembly as part of a more in-depth discussion, he said in an interview published on the Focolare website Jan. 20.
In October, the lay movement’s two top leaders in France and the leader of the movement’s Western Europe region resigned and an independent committee was launched to investigate the handling of allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by Jean-Michel Merlin.
Moran said in the January interview that they hired an independent British company to investigate all allegations and known facts connected “with the Merlin case because it is serious, and we can learn from it.”
The investigation process will probably take a year, he said, but they have already realized these “situations of abuse have highlighted some weaknesses in formation programs and, therefore, there is a need to take care of all stages of this process and pay great attention to the people involved.”
The Focolare have an internal commission for the safeguarding and protection of children and vulnerable adults, and a commission that is independent of the movement’s governing bodies for the protection of individuals from abuse of authority, power and sexual misconduct.
While the safeguarding of youth commission already has supervisory bodies set up to oversee its work, he said, “we should also set up supervisory bodies at all levels” that include “people from outside the movement to ensure greater transparency.”
In his speech to the movement, Pope Francis said, recently “we have lived and discovered with much pain” the reality of abuse.
Any approach that is self-centered “impedes seeing mistakes and deficiencies, hinders the journey, hampers an open examination of institutional procedures and styles of governance,” he said.
The pope said every crisis is an opportunity for new growth and greater maturity if one does not give up when faced by the complexity and contradictions of human nature.
While it is the responsibility of the governing bodies “to address community and organizational crises in the best, most constructive way,” people with governing authority at any level in the movement should not be charged with the spiritual guidance of individuals, he added.
“This is a good rule that applies not only to moments of crisis in individuals but applies in general to their accompaniment on their spiritual journey,” the pope said.
“In fact, the commingling of the scope of governance and the scope of conscience gives room for the abuse of power and other abuses of which we have been witness to when the lid has been lifted off of these terrible problems,” he said.
Pope Francis encouraged all members of the Focolare to continue to find inspiration in their late founder, Chiara Lubich, and to always be listening for the cries of today’s crucified Christ.
This love for those who are abandoned comes from God’s grace that allows the human person, “weak and sinful,” to respond with generosity and sometimes heroism, and to “transform suffering and even tragedies into sources of light and hope for humanity.”
The more than 350 delegates taking part in the assembly elected Margaret Karram, a 58-year-old expert in interreligious dialogue, president for a six-year term, succeeding Maria Voce, who was in office for two six-year terms. They reelected Father Moran, 63, to a second term as co-president.