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ROME – Pope Francis met with members of his child protection body Friday, stressing the importance of making reparation for past failures and urging them not to be discouraged when it seems like no progress is being made.
Speaking to members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors Friday, the pope told them not to be discouraged in their work, saying, “Even when the path forward is difficult and demanding, I urge you not to get bogged down.”
“Keep reaching out, keep trying to instill confidence in those you meet and who share with you this common cause. Do not grow discouraged when it seems that little is changing for the better. Persevere and keep moving forwards!” he said.
Francis’s audience with the commission comes at the end of their spring plenary assembly in Rome, during which they welcomed 10 new members and sought to regroup amid what has been a trying and complicated year involving contentious departures and a move to a new Rome headquarters.
Pope Francis created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to advise the Vatican on best practices in terms of safeguarding efforts and abuse prevention. American Cardinal Sean O’Malley serves as the commission’s president, and British Father Andrew Small as its secretary.
Since its foundation nearly ten years ago, the commission has faced a series of ups and downs, including significant setbacks with criticism of its effectiveness and the departure of high-profile members, including Irish abuse survivor and advocate Marie Collins, who stepped down in 2017 citing frustration over what she said were efforts by some Vatican officials and offices to stonewall the commission’s proposed reforms.
In March the commission took another hit when German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a founding member of the commission and one of the church’s most recognized figures when it comes to child protection, made the surprising announcement of his decision to resign from the body over what he said were problems and difficulties with Vatican bureaucracy related to “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”
He also raised strong concerns over the commission’s relationship with the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), which handles clerical abuse cases.
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Pope Francis last year issued a long-awaited reform of the Vatican’s central governing bureaucracy, placing the commission within the DDF in the hopes that making it a formal part of the Roman Curia would render it more effective, however, many observers questioned whether the commission would still be effective while belonging to a bureaucracy which historically has been stubbornly resistant to change.
Zollner when he resigned echoed these concerns, saying that more than a year later, there are still no clear rules governing the commission’s relationship with the DDF, and who commission officials are supposed to report to.
In his speech Friday, Pope Francis said that in the decade that has elapsed since the commission was formed, “we have all learned a great deal, myself included.”
“The sexual abuse of minors by clergy and its poor handling by Church leaders has been one of the greatest challenges for the Church in our time,” he said, saying, “The failure to act properly to halt this evil and to assist its victims has sullied our witness to God’s love.”
Yet despite the harm done and the Church’s scandalous failure to act, the pope insisted that progress is being made, and pointed to his 2019 modification to church law Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which enforces mandatory reporting for bishops and outlines measures for when bishops themselves are accused of abuse.
Francis stressed the need for the commission to embody what he termed a “spirituality of reparation” in the abuse crisis, saying, “where harm was done to people’s lives, we are called to keep in mind God’s creative power to make hope emerge from despair and life from death.”
“The terrible sense of loss that many experience as a result of abuse can sometimes seem a burden too heavy to bear. Church leaders, who share a sense of shame for their failure to act, have suffered a loss of credibility, and our very ability to preach the Gospel has been damaged. Yet the Lord, who brings about new birth in every age, can restore life to dry bones,” he said.
For many victims, the abuse they experienced continues to have an ongoing impact on their lives and relationships, the pope said, but insisted that “our lives are not meant to remain divided.”
“What is broken must not stay broken…The mission Jesus received from his Father is to ensure that nothing and no one is lost,” he said. “Where life is broken, then, I ask you to help put pieces back together, in the hope that what is broken can be repaired.”
Pope Francis said he recently met with a group of survivors, most of whom were elderly, who had asked to meet with the leadership of the religious institute that ran the school they had attended some 50 years ago in order to voice their concerns and obtain a sense of peace with what had happened.
“They wanted closure not only for the evil they had suffered, but also for the questions that had haunted them ever since. They wanted to be heard and believed; they wanted someone to help them to understand. We talked together and they had the courage to open up,” he said, saying this mending of the past is part of the redemptive work the commission is tasked with.
He encouraged commission members to cultivate an approach to safeguarding “that mirrors the respect and kindness of God himself,” and told them to “be gentle in your actions, bearing one another’s burdens, without complaining, but considering that this moment of reparation for the Church will give way to a further moment in the history of salvation.”
“Now is the time to repair the damage done to previous generations and to those who continue to suffer…it is important that we never stop pressing ahead,” he said.
In terms of the commission’s work, Francis said training ought to be provided at the diocesan level in parishes and seminaries, as well as for teachers, catechists, pastoral workers, and religious men and women, including cloistered communities.
He pointed to the disparity that is often apparent between safeguarding projects in developed nations, and those in poorer areas of the world, saying, “the principles of respect for the dignity of all, for right conduct and a sound way of life must become a universal rule, independent of people’s culture or economic and social condition.”
“All the Church’s ministers must respect this rule in the way they serve the faithful, and they in turn must be treated with respect and dignity by those who lead the community. Indeed, a culture of safeguarding will only take root if there is a pastoral conversion in this regard among the Church’s leaders,” he said.
Francis applauded the commission’s establishment of training programs and forms of assistance to victims in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which have traditionally trailed behind the West in terms of awareness and progress on the safeguarding front.
“It is not right that the most prosperous areas of the world should have well-trained and well-funded safeguarding programs, where victims and their families are respected, while in other parts of the world they suffer in silence, perhaps rejected or stigmatized when they try to come forward to tell of the abuse they have suffered,” he said, adding, “Here too, the Church must seek to be a model of acceptance and good practice.”
Efforts to improve guidelines and safeguarding standards must continue, he said, and asked the commission to keep him informed of their work through an annual report he tasked them with last year evaluating what is working well and what is not, “so that appropriate changes can be made.”
He noted that last year he had asked that the commission share its expertise with the various dicasteries of the Roman Curia, and applauded an agreement on safeguarding they recently signed with the Dicastery for Evangelization.
“You have already done much in these first six months. I bless you from my heart. Know that I am close to your work; and please, remember to pray for me, as I will for you,” he said.
In his greeting to the pope, O’Malley said the Church must work harder so that “a culture of care can grow and become the norm throughout our Church.”
“We are a sign that the ministry of safeguarding belongs to all of us as it is part of the Church’s ministry, indeed of evangelization itself,” he said, and cited several recent steps the commission has taken to bolster safeguarding projects throughout the world, particularly in the global south.
O’Malley said that many steps have already been taken, but that “We are just getting started!”
“You remain an example to use, of reaching to the peripheries, of being like a field hospital for victims of sexual abuse and, perhaps, of leaving nothing un-dared so that these little ones are kept safe in our Church,” he said, and pledged their commitment in service of “those who need to know the presence of the Church and her leadership in a very real way.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen