Pope Francis asks top bishops to meet with sex abuse victims before Vatican summit

  Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of clerical sexual abuse in Chile, becomes emotional after speaking to reporters outside the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in New York Feb. 17. (CNS photo/Eduardo Munoz, Reuters) 

Pope Francis wants the presidents of the Catholics bishops’ conferences in every country to personally meet with victims of sexual abuse by clergy and religious before coming to a meeting at the Vatican on the protection of minors in the church in February.

The request came in a letter to top bishops and other participants from the steering committee set up by Pope Francis earlier this month to coordinate and prepare for the Feb. 21 to 24 summit. Even though the letter does not say so explicitly, America has learned that Pope Francis personally approved the request, which was suggested by the committee.

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The pope meets with abuse victims almost every week in Rome, has met others on his visits to the United States and Ireland and also invited high-profile Chilean victims to the Vatican last May. He feels these personal encounters are of inestimable importance if bishops are to properly understand and respond to the suffering of the victims and the great crisis in the church resulting from the abuse of children and vulnerable people by members of the clergy and religious orders.

The request is a clear indication that children, not the reputation of the church, will be the paramount concern at the meeting.

The request is a clear indication that children, not the reputation of the church, will be the paramount concern at this meeting. Most important, the request seeks to ensure that the voices of victims be heard in a very personal way by all participants at the conference.  

The Vatican broke the news today, Dec. 18, when it released the text of the letter, signed by the four members of the steering committee appointed by the pope: Cardinals Blase Cupich and Oswald Gracias, Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Hans Zollner, S.J.

The letter began by recalling the “Letter to the People of God,” which Pope Francis wrote on the eve of his visit to Dublin last August, in response to the abuse crisis in the church. In it, the pope reminded everyone in the church that, in the words of St. Paul, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”

It recalled that Francis then made clear that those abused by clerics were also damaged when “we showed no care for the little ones; [when] we abandoned them.”

The pope feels personal encounters are of inestimable importance if bishops are to properly respond to the suffering of the victims.

“If, in the past, the response was one of omission,” the letter continued, “today we want solidarity, in the deepest and most challenging sense, to become our way of forging present and future history.”

The letter said that “absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.”

As part of that response, the letter said, “the first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened.”

“For this reason, we urge each episcopal conference president to reach out and visit with victim survivors of clergy sex abuse in your respective countries prior to the meeting in Rome, to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.”

“The Holy Father is convinced” that “the challenges facing the church can be met through collegial cooperation.”

The committee, in a communique given to the press alongside the letter, explained to participants that “such personal encounters are a concrete way of ensuring that victim survivors of clerical abuse are first and foremost in the minds of all at the February gathering as they come together ‘in solidarity, humility and penitence’ to move forward in addressing the abuse crisis.”

The letter contains “a brief request for information to be used for internal preparation for the meeting.” It comes in the form of a questionnaire attached to the letter and is to serve as “a tool” for all participants of the February meeting “to express their opinions constructively and critically as we move forward to identify where help is needed to bring about reforms now and in the future” and “to help us get a full picture of the situation in the church.”

The letter said Pope Francis thanks the summit participants for completing the questionnaire so as “to prepare better for the meeting” and “to take up this road together.” It asked them to submit their completed questionnaire by Jan. 15.

Furthermore, it informed participants that “the Holy Father is convinced” that “the challenges facing the church can be met through collegial cooperation.”

In the note for the press accompanying the letter, the committee explains that “the meeting will focus on three main themes of responsibility, accountability and transparency as participants work together to respond to this grave challenge.”

The letter tells participants “each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a commitment to transparency and holding everyone in the church accountable.”

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse.]

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Tim O'Leary
11 months ago

This is a good idea. however, I am concerned that this signals an exclusive focus on the sex abuse of minors (pre-pubescent children and teenagers) in Feb and will not assist the US bishops in dealing with the McCarrick affair and the seminary abuses across the globe. As the PA grand jury data clearly showed (but mostly ignored by the media), minor abuse is greatly diminished in the Church since the Dallas Charter, but not the enabling culture. Given his recent statements on the problems of the gay subculture in seminaries and subsets of priests and bishops, Pope Francis clearly recognizes the detrimental effect this is having on the evangelizing mission of the Church. I wait to see how he plans to address this systemically.

Stephen de Weger
11 months ago

Fully agree,Tim, but it's not just seminarians - so, so many other adults have been abused by clergy and all need to be included in a holistic approach top the complete issue of clergy sexual activity, celibacy/chastity and the priesthood being the central core of the church's power.

William Guglielmi
11 months ago

Tim, I agree with you that the focus needs to be on the enabling culture but would argue that requiring the conference presidents to meet with victims is a step in that direction. Forcing one to meet with any victim personalizes the situation. Suddenly it is no longer an administrative, legal, or remote disciplinary issue—it is now personal. The Church took a long time to get itself in this situation and it will take a long time for it to come to a correct and just solution.

Stephen de Weger
11 months ago

Totally agree, Wiliam.

Michael Barberi
11 months ago

This letter seems to ignore the full picture of this sexual abuse scandal, in particular the coverup by Cardinals and Bishops, the sexual abuse of adults by Cardinals and Bishops and the possible gross negligence of ecclesial office, including the papacy (e.g., the promotion of McCarrick to Cardinal in light of his known sexual abuse). The focus seems to be on the victims which is a very good idea because they are the ones who have suffered horrific immoral sexual acts that have damaged them for life. Nevertheless, I hope Pope Francis and this Conference in February will effectively deal the full truth and hold all priests, bishops and cardinals found guilty of the allegations in the PA Grand Jury Report, the Vigano letter and the entire McCarrick scandal to appropriate justice. Of course, this means an independent and thorough investigation. Let's hope this investigation is also transparent and honest. In the end, we need significant reforms and not more apologies and a few more rules and procedures.

Stephen de Weger
11 months ago

Agree with you, too, Michael. Wish they'd let us be part of the big meet.

Stephen de Weger
11 months ago

An invitation to Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia: Pope Francis asks top bishops to meet with sex abuse victims before Vatican summit: I'm still willing if you are - to meet. After all, I've been waiting for around 5 years to give my version of events, for you to "see my face and hear my voice". I can come over tomorrow, if you want.

Lea Karen Kivi
11 months ago

Several women abused as adults contacted me after the #ChurchToo article was published. Please don't forget the women religious, laywomen, laymen, seminarians, and priests themselves who have been abused in adulthood.

Lea Karen Kivi
11 months ago

Perhaps an external complaint-handling organization ought to be set up.

sheila gray
11 months ago

A very, very good first step on the Road To Healing. This Survivor heaved a big sigh of relief when I saw this headline and photo of Juan Carlos Cruz. Thank you for listening at long last.

Doug LaFleur
11 months ago

This sounds good but will it delay the Vatican meeting in February? American bishops’ efforts, in their attempt to establish uniform protocol, were placed on the back burner in favor of a worldwide endeavor. Critics of Pope Francis have asserted a “slow walk” approach as well as “errors in judgement” (quotation marks used only to bring special attention, not to attribute statements to anyone). We’ll see...

William Guglielmi
11 months ago

Doug, I hope that it does not delay the February session. I am in agreement with the Pope’s decision to approach the problem universally rather than by each individual conference. I was not certain that the US bishops’ approach was correct because I was concerned that it was a knee-jerk response to the both the McCarrick and Pennsylvania grand jury reports. To me it paralleled a flaw I see in the American political system (with which I must confess I studied much more than the Church)—that being “shoot from the hip” reactive responses to crises—the “we must been seen as doing something” school of management. It also seemed to me to mirror another American trait—that of viewing a global issue from a parochial, American perspective. Another confession—as an American I suffer from both ‘flaws’ that I discuss above. Please do not read anything I wrote as an excuse for inaction. The Church must act and it must do so decisively. Guilty and culpable clerics must be punished and the punishment must be dramatic. No exiles to monasteries with honorifics intact, no general pleas for prayers all around. Rome must be decisive.

William Guglielmi
11 months ago

Doug, I hope that it does not delay the February session. I am in agreement with the Pope’s decision to approach the problem universally rather than by each individual conference. I was not certain that the US bishops’ approach was correct because I was concerned that it was a knee-jerk response to the both the McCarrick and Pennsylvania grand jury reports. To me it paralleled a flaw I see in the American political system (with which I must confess I studied much more than the Church)—that being “shoot from the hip” reactive responses to crises—the “we must been seen as doing something” school of management. It also seemed to me to mirror another American trait—that of viewing a global issue from a parochial, American perspective. Another confession—as an American I suffer from both ‘flaws’ that I discuss above. Please do not read anything I wrote as an excuse for inaction. The Church must act and it must do so decisively. Guilty and culpable clerics must be punished and the punishment must be dramatic. No exiles to monasteries with honorifics intact, no general pleas for prayers all around. Rome must be decisive.

Doug LaFleur
11 months ago

This sounds good but will it delay the Vatican meeting in February? American bishops’ efforts, in their attempt to establish uniform protocol, were placed on the back burner in favor of a worldwide endeavor. Critics of Pope Francis have asserted a “slow walk” approach as well as “errors in judgement” (quotation marks used only to bring special attention, not to attribute statements to anyone). We’ll see...

Ann Hodges
11 months ago

I totally agree that the abuse of women religious and seminarians must be part of the agenda - not to mention the abuse of adult laymen and laywomen.

arthur mccaffrey
11 months ago

it is still a meeting of the inmates to determine how best to run the asylum. Instead of articles like this one trying to put the best possible spin on the Feb. meeting, let's have more articles about how local law enforcement and judiciaries are finally raiding diocesan files for evidence of abuse and cover up.

Tim O'Leary
11 months ago

Arthur - you have way too much confidence in the law enforcement to get anything done. Pennsylvania has now gone through a Grand Jury in Philadelphia and now western dioceses (incl. Pittsburgh). And what have they to show for it? Lots of media attention, AG grandstanding, confusion about current and past abuse and current and past enabling, and millions diverted from parishioners' donations to lawyers. Here are some problems: 1) All allegations are assumed as true, when at least a third (half in Phili) end up false a few years later (some innocent priest's life and reputation destroyed); 2) only 2 priests of 300 named in PA Grand Jury were new since 2002 (Dallas Charter) and most priests are dead (they went back 70 years!); 3) Several accused priests needed to have names protected by PA Supreme Court, because this process failed badly in due process; 4) Even of the guilty, very few will ever get convicted: In John Jay Report 4,392 clergy were accused, 3,300 never investigated (cleric dead), 1,021 were reported to police, 384 were charged, 252 convicted & 100 went to prison. It is all very depressing. Far from real justice and fairness. Seems more like a racket for AG fame and lawyer enrichment. Then there are those who lose their faith and leave the Church back into the abyss. Destroyed lives, and lost souls. The devil is having a field day. God help us.

sheila gray
11 months ago

Sorry, Tim, you’re wrong. Less than 10% of abuse allegations prove to be false. It’s more like less than 5%. How dare you promulgate this tired, old lie. What is wrong with you?

Tim O'Leary
11 months ago

Show me the data on that Sheila. You are wrong for the Philadelphia case (42% not guilty), which I studied in detail and the results are online. Minors are protected by bringing the true abusers to justice, and my soul is protected by NOT falsely accusing the innocent priests (8th commandment). In march 2011, Seth Williams, the DA, announced results of a Grand Jury. He declared 37 priests likely abusers (alleged). But 8 had already been investigated and cleared, and 3 were too old (assumed guilty). Archbishop Chaput immediately put all 26 active accused priests on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted. Some years later, we have the outcome (http://archphila.org/HHHIC/hhhic.php): 1 died (inconclusive), 4 found CSA - Child sexual abuse & went to criminal cases. 10 found unsuitable for reasons other than CSA (Adult affairs, harassment, crossed boundaries, etc.). 11 were cleared & were returned to ministry: that's 42% of the 26, or 19/37 (51%). Very poor batting average! Don't be blinded by rage. Be firm if guilt is proven. Seek justice and fairness for every child, and every priest and bishop.

sheila gray
11 months ago

I refuse to banter with you about this, sir. I am 66 years old. I am dying. I was told three years ago by Cardiologists that I “might have a year to live”. I am on my way in early January to St. Louis, where the Religious Order of nuns (RSCJs) to which my abuser belongs is headquartered, to establish a national Clergy Abuse Crisis Line staffed by Survivors and mental health professionals. I welcome your help of any kind. I ask anyone who would like to help, come on board. Stay tuned. This revolution will be televised.

Tim O'Leary
11 months ago

Sheila - sorry to hear you are dying. We all are, of course, although we do not know the time nor the hour. Then we will face Judgement day, where the justice is perfect, where the true abusers and the false accusers will finally be found out, where the enablers, the exaggerators, the minimizers, the opportunists, and those who built up the Christ's Church and those who opposed the true teachings of the Church will get their due, and the punishment and reward will be eternal. From your posts, and your lesbian abuse, you have taken on the mantle of survivor. I suppose those who get into heaven are the only ultimate survivors. The only true revolution is in the hearts of every child of God. God bless.

sheila gray
11 months ago

My abusive nun abuser is not a lesbian. This is another lie that needs to die. Homosexuality is not the cause of the Catholic Clergy Abuse Crisis. Secrecy is the cause. The abuse crisis was caused by the desire to protect Donations. The Religious of the Sacred Heart has covered up my abuse for 50 years for one reason: to protect Donations. In the last 50 years the RSCJ’s have raised hundreds of Millions of dollars. This would not have happened if the Alumni Association of the Sacred Heart knew what was done to me 50 years ago, End of story. I refuse to wait till after death to seek Justice. Your platitudes are laughable. Get real, Tim.

Tim O'Leary
10 months 4 weeks ago

Sheila - On Nov 15 (link below) you said "I was molested by a Sacred Heart nun. I went to see her in Atherton, CA two years ago. I found out that she was molested by her Mistress of Novices in the 1960’s. But she doesn’t even realize she was molested. When she talked about the woman who ruined her for life, she had a smile on her face... She loved it!!!" I am not sure how to interpret this unless you mean she is a bisexual who sexually abused another woman? That would seem to be splitting hairs. Anyway, your specific survival claim is with nuns, not priests and bishops, from your own witness. Good luck with your quest for justice. You can be sure to run into it, one way or another. We all will. It's not just about money.

https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2018/11/15/how-pastoral-failures-communication-are-provoking-crisis-faith#comment-113442

sheila gray
11 months ago

Sorry, Tim, you’re wrong. Less than 10% of abuse allegations prove to be false. It’s more like less than 5%. How dare you promulgate this tired, old lie. What is wrong with you?

Vincent Gaglione
11 months ago

I wince at the fact that the Pope has to recommend, so long after all these instances of child abuse have become public, that presidents of bishops’ conferences meet with victims. I supposed that bishops do it as a matter of course these days. Sadly, and apparently, I am mistaken.

As for adults coerced or seduced into sexual situations, they too deserve attention and recognition. But I do think that the child abuse situation requires pre-eminent and immediate attention. Bishops should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time.

Michael Barberi
11 months ago

Excellent point Vincent. Why does the Pope have to suggest that the heads of the Conferences of Bishops meet with sexual abuse victims? In truth, most bishops have not done this. They should be focusing on what they did themselves and applying justice for those guilty of coverup and the enabling of the continued sexual abuse.
We also know that the overwhelming percent of bishops never have met with the members of the LGBT community in order to try to build a bridge to them and understand their suffering, discrimination, unwelcomeness and disenfranchisement. These Catholics are constantly being told that they have an 'innate intrinsic disorder' where their salvation rests upon the imposed requirement by hierarchy to practice a lifetime of sexual abstinence.
I seriously doubt, but hope, that the February meeting will adequately address the sexual abuse scandal and institute significant reforms including embracing justice. We are still waiting for the bishops to put forth and implement an effective pastoral pathway to treat homosexuals with respect, compassion and sensitivity, and rethink how they discriminate against them in employment, adoption and lay ministries. So far, we have heard nothing.

John Chuchman
10 months 3 weeks ago

The challenges facing the Church cannot cannot be overcome by continuing its Clericalism, Francis.

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