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.
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.”