Exclusive: Archbishop Scicluna says February meeting start of ‘global approach’ to fighting sex abuse
In a decision highlighting the great importance he gives to next February’s summit meeting on “the protection of minors in the church,” to which he has called the presidents of all the Catholic bishops conferences, Pope Francis has appointed a high-powered steering committee to oversee the project.
The committee is composed of two cardinals, Blase Cupich (Chicago) and Oswald Gracias (Bombay, India), and two of the church’s experts in the field: Archbishop Charles Scicluna (Malta), and Father Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit and president of the Center for Child Protection and Director and professor of psychology at the Gregorian University in Rome, who will serve as coordinator. The Vatican announced this today, November 23.
In this exclusive interview with America, Archbishop Scicluna, whom the pope recently appointed as adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and who is also the president of its tribunal for appeals, speaks about the significance and goals of the February meeting, and how it will be conducted.
The Vatican announced today the archbishop will serve on a committee overseeing the Vatican meeting along with Cardinals Blase Cupich and Oswald Gracias and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner.
He described it as “a synodal meeting, the first ever of its kind to address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors in the church.“ It is “quite significant” because it brings together the presidents of over 100 bishops conferences from around the world, and the heads of all the Eastern-rite Catholic churches. Moreover, it is “a very important sign of what we call in technical terms ‘affective collegiality,’ which means the bringing together of bishops from around the world with the Holy Father to discuss important issues and to get them to be on the same page with the Holy Father.”
He said Pope Francis called this summit meeting because “he realizes that this issue,” namely the protection of children and the prevention and addressing of sexual abuse by clergy in the church, “has to be top on the church’s agenda.” The pope realizes that “this is a global issue, it is not a case of geographical or cultural criteria, rather it is a global issue which the church would want to approach with a united front, with respect for the different cultures but with a united resolve and with people being on the same page on it.”
While acknowledging that it is only four days long (Feb. 21-24) and “is certainly not going to solve everything,” Archbishop Scicluna emphasized that “it is a very important start of a global process which will take quite some time to perfect.” As a result of this process he hopes that “a number of initiatives on a continental level will start to happen that will re-create the atmosphere of resolve, determination but also purpose which I hope will mark the Rome meeting,” and will help “to address the issues in a different number of cultures, that have their own restraints, their own important positive aspects but also deficits that have to be discussed on a continental but also local level.”
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Archbishop Scicluna described the February meeting as “the beginning of a new approach that I hope will be global, because it concerns the whole church, but it will also have a very important local context because safeguarding is not something up-there, it can’t be abstract, it has to be lived in every parish, in every school, in every diocese, and so it has to have an effect on the local level otherwise it’s not effective at all.”
He explained that the “main goals” of the meeting “are to make bishops realize and discuss together the fact that the sexual abuse of minors is not only an egregious phenomenon in itself and a crime, but it is also a very grave symptom of something deeper, which is actually a crisis in the way we approach ministry. Some call it clericalism, others call it a perversion of the ministry.”
He recalled that Pope Francis “has talked a lot about the way we go on with the stewardship of the community, not only as bishops but also as priests,” and said “the issue not only concerns the individual tragic cases of misconduct and the impact of that crime on the most vulnerable, the children, but also the way stewardship is exercised when we are faced with the issues; so the way we treat perpetrators, the way we treat victims, the way we treat the community.” All this will be discussed in February.
“Accountability is part of stewardship,” the archbishop stated. “Stewardship is not only accountability to God and to our conscience, but also to our community,” he explained; “stewardship means doing your job and doing it properly, especially when it is a question of care,” whereas “cover-up” is “the antithesis of stewardship.” “When you cover-up,” he said, “you are actually not solving a problem, you are deciding not to address it, you are deciding to hide important consequences and avoid the demands of justice, which is certainly not good stewardship.” He emphasized that “we have to move away from panic-driven policies that put the good name of the institution above all other considerations” and “in the end, those policies do reputational damage to the institution; they are actually also counterproductive, and it’s a no-go area.” He insisted that “we need to move forward from any temptation to cover up any crimes. It is only the truth will set us free.”
Archbishop Scicluna declared that “if we have a sickness in the body of the church, we need to face it, not to hide it, because otherwise it will grow and do more damage.” He recalled that Pope Francis “addressed the question of accountability in a law that he promulgated in 2016,” in the decree “As a Loving Mother,” which “creates a procedure whereby bishops who are negligent or not up to standard with their stewardship can be removed.” Indeed, he said, “there is an old tradition according to which, if the bishop is going to cause harm with his stewardship, then the See of Rome has the right and the duty to remove such a bishop.”
In this context, he emphasized that “we cannot avoid the important theological aspect that we bishops are stewards in a hierarchical communion together with the Holy Father, and so there is a jurisdiction of the Holy Father over each and every one of us bishops that we have to respect when we talk of accountability within the context of the Roman Catholic Church.”
He said the February meeting aims to get bishops and religious superiors “to realize the gravity of the situation,” to accept ownership of the issue, and then “to address questions of stewardship,” which means “not only how we care about our children, but also how we deal with cases [of abuse] and so questions of accountability and transparency are of the utmost importance,” and will be discussed at the meeting.
In this context, he said, “we bishops need to approach the issue of the sexual abuse of minors together as churches, and we also need to adopt what Pope Francis is calling ‘a synodal approach,’ that is we cannot do it alone in our community, we need also to empower the lay people, the laity, in order to help us be good stewards.”
He believes the meeting will communicate “the important message” that “the prevention of abuse and protection and safeguarding of our children and young people is not a question only of the bishop, it is a synodal issue; it is something that involves the whole church and everyone in the church around the world; it concerns one and all.”
Insisting on “this synodal aspect,” Archbishop Scicluna said, “it is not only bringing the bishops together but also approaching it on the local level as a community, in a synodal process. It takes a village to educate a child, and it takes a village to prevent abuse and to approach it properly wherever, unfortunately, it happens.”
He said Pope Francis wants the church to move forward on this question in a synodal manner, following the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council. He explained that “synodality means that we appreciate the different charisms and gifts of the laity, their expertise, and that we empower them to join bishops in the role of stewardship.” He added, “it’s not a question of having control over the hierarchy, it is the hierarchy empowering and facilitating the sharing of charisms which the Spirit also gives to the laity, because there are gifts there that will help issues of prevention and safeguarding that we need to bring on board, and we need to facilitate as bishops.”
He recalled that Pope Francis highlighted this synodal aspect in confronting abuse in his “Letter to the People of God” before his visit to Dublin last August; “he wants that to be on the agenda of every conference of bishops around the world” and at the Rome meeting he wants the bishops “to listen to victims, to talk to experts, and to listen to each other and to the concern that this issue brings before them.”
He expects the February meeting in process and structure to be somewhat like a synod in so far as “there are going to be plenary sessions; there are going to be language groups working, and then reporting back; there are going to be prayer groups; there are going to be listening to different stake-holders. It’s going to be a mixture of information, formation, discussion. The idea is that certain values are not only agreed upon, but also that certain priorities are put forward and adopted by the bishops.”
There will be “a penitential liturgy” during the meeting because “Pope Francis wants it,” Archbishop Scicluna said, “and victims are going to be a part of that liturgy too, just as they will be consulted in advance of the meeting, and be listened to during it.”
Some have spoken about the need for changes in Canon Law so as to deal properly with the abuse issue. Commenting on this, Archbishop Scicluna said, “Canon law always follows reality. To a certain extent it does form people in a certain context like the 1983 code of canon law did form a generation in the implementation of Vatican II.” Since canon law follows reality, he said, “it will have to change in response to new issues and new priorities in the church.” He envisaged, for example, the possibility of changes that would give “a stronger role for the metropolitan bishops” and “a bigger role for the victims in canonical penal processes.” He doesn’t think the February meeting “is going to enter into the details of such reforms of canon law” but he expects that “there will be an important input that will start a process that may actually get a reform of canon law.”
Archbishop Scicluna hopes “that the spirit of this meeting will be positive and proactive, and will also help to give a sign of hope to the bishops themselves, to the whole church, to the People of God, and, importantly to leadership at all levels in the church.”
The Vatican announced that in addition to the presidents of the bishops conferences and the heads of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches, there will be other participants too at the February meeting, including the prefects of the C.D.F. and the congregations for the evangelization of peoples, the oriental churches, bishops, the institutes of consecrated life and the societies of apostolic life, and of the dicastery for laity, the family and life. Representatives of the Union of Religious Superiors and of the International Union of Superiors Generals are also invited.
The Maltese archbishop underlined the importance of the presence of these major superiors because “they have hundreds of religious under their care, most of them priests but also even lay religious and they also are important stakeholders in education, in formation and in pastoral care. Superior Generals for women religious will also be present. It is very, very important to have the major superiors present and part of this process.”
In its statement today, the Vatican revealed that besides the four members of the steering committee, many other people are involved in the preparation for the meeting, including lay experts and two lay women who are under-secretaries from the dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life: Gabriella Gambino and Linda Ghisoni. The Commission for the Protection of Minors, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, is also involved and, most importantly, so too are “some victims of abuse by clergy.”
Referring to the steering committee, Archbishop Scicluna said Pope Francis chose its four members to be “responsible for the organization” and “for advising him” and the Secretariat of States. Their task is to oversee the preparation for the meeting, and to ensure that everything is done properly. He emphasized that the choice of Father Zollner as coordinator of the committee is “an important reminder” that the meeting is “not only about stewardship, it’s also about reflective stewardship”; he brings “the expertise of psychology and best practices in prevention, which have to be part and parcel of the stewardship role of the church.”
He concluded by repeating that the meeting is only “the beginning of a process” and when it ends “we’ll have to leave the Holy Father and his close collaborators any decisions for further meetings on a continental basis, on a more decentralized basis. This is the beginning of a process, it is not the beginning and end of something.”