Pope Francis opened the four-day Vatican summit on the protection of minors in the church this morning by telling the 190 participants from more than 130 countries that “the holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us…concrete and effective measures to be undertaken” to respond to the sexual abuse of minors in the church.
To reinforce his words he provided the attending bishops with 21 specific points to guide their discussion in the 11 working groups divided according to languages—English, Italian, Spanish and French.
Pope Francis spoke after leading the participants in morning prayer in the Vatican’s synod hall on Feb. 21. He told the presidents of 114 bishops’ conferences, heads of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches, and the international leadership of women’s and men’s religious orders that he wanted “to consult” them “in light of the scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by ecclesiastics to the great harm of minors.”
In a brief introductory talk, Francis said, “We sense the weight of the pastoral and ecclesial responsibility that obliges us to discuss together, in a synodal, frank and in-depth manner, how to confront this evil afflicting the church and humanity.
“We begin this process,” he said, “armed with faith and a spirit of great parrhesia [boldness], courage and concreteness.”
He prayed that the Holy Spirit would “sustain” summit participants and “help us to turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification….as we seek to heal the grave wounds that the scandal of pedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers.”
Last December, Pope Francis asked all the participants to meet with victims, underlining his conviction that hearts cannot be converted and the summit cannot properly address this “plague” unless the assembled church leaders all felt “the pain and suffering of the victims.”
That message was driven home even more powerfully this morning.
After the pope finished speaking, five victim-survivors from Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Europe briefly addressed the summit with personal, passionate messages, recalling their own suffering and pleading for concrete action. They spoke so movingly that when they finished, one participant told America, there was “a silence in the room like that of a cemetery.”
Pope Francis prayed that the Holy Spirit would “sustain” summit participants and “help us to turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification.”
Today’s main focus is on “responsibility”—the responsibility of bishops and religious superiors in dealing with abuse. Participants heard from three keynote speakers, two of them this morning: Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, who spoke on “The smell of the sheep: Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the core of the shepherd’s task,” and Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who focused on “Taking responsibility for processing cases of sexual abuse crisis and for prevention of abuse.”
This afternoon, the Colombian Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez spoke on “The church in a moment of crisis: facing conflicts and tensions and acting decisively.”
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It is worth noting that the organizers have carefully planned the three keynote talks given today (as they have the six other similar talks on Feb. 22 and 23) to ensure that they synchronize with each other, without overlapping, in an effort to lead participants step-by-step into the various aspects of dealing with the scandal of abuse.
Some were surprised, for example, that Archbishop Scicluna delivered a very basic talk, walking participants through the steps bishops and heads of religious orders should follow in their handling of abuse cases once allegations are made. He spoke too about the precautions they should take in the acceptance and formation of candidates for the priesthood to ensure these are suitable and to prevent the risk of abuse.
He told participants, “The faith community under our care should know that we mean business. They should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth.” He added, “We will engage them with candor and humility. We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”
He also told the summit participants that “a good steward will empower his community through information and formation.” He explained later that this also included informing victims what is happening to the cases of abuse they bring to light.
Today’s main focus is on “responsibility”—the responsibility of bishops and religious superiors in dealing with abuse.
Archbishop Scicluna emphasized that “an essential aspect of the exercise of stewardship in these cases is the proper interface with civil jurisdiction,” and he reminded participants that the abuse of minors “is also a crime in all jurisdictions.”
The Maltese archbishop told the summit that “another aspect of the stewardship of prevention is the selection and presentation of candidates for the mission of bishop.” He noted, “Many demand that the process be more open to the input of laypeople in the community.”
His talk was formulated in a way that ensures that from the beginning of this summit all participants are “on the same page” so that when it comes to the discussion groups, they will be able to move from a shared knowledge of their common responsibility.
The importance of so targeting the keynote addresses became evident later during the question time after the morning’s talks when, as the Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge revealed, one bishop asked why they had to discuss “sexual abuse” since they had so many other forms of abuse and violence on his continent. It seems the continent was either Africa or Asia.
Federico Lombardi, S.J., who is moderator of the summit, reported that Pope Francis had given participants a 21-point “road map” to guide their discussion. He said those points are formulated so as to bring forth concrete proposals from the group discussions that would be very important for “the follow-up” to this four-day meeting. Archbishop Scicluna explained that follow-up is likely to include changes to canon law. Earlier this week Hans Zollner, S.J., professor of psychology and president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said the creation of task forces to help bishops’ conferences address abuse may also be an outcome of the summit discussions.
The 21 points are wide-ranging. Point 1, for example, calls for the preparation of “a practical handbook” indicating steps to be taken by church authorities “at key moments when a case emerges.”
Number 5 says: “Inform the civil authorities and the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with civil and canon law.” Number 7 says: “Establish specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops.” Number 8 speaks about the need to “accompany, protect and treat victims, offering them all the necessary support for a complete recovery.” Number 13 says: “Establish provisions that regulate and facilitate the participation of lay experts in investigations and in the different degrees of judgment of canonical processes concerning sexual and/or power abuse.”
Significantly, Number 15 says: “Observe the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime committed” and “to decide that priests and bishops guilty of sexual abuse leave the public ministry.”
Number 14 speaks of “the right to defense” and adds, “The principle of natural and canon law of presumption of innocence must also be safeguarded until the guilt of the accused is proven.” And so, it says, “it is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by the dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and the definitive condemnation.” Number 19 calls for the formulation of “mandatory codes of conduct for all clerics, religious, service personnel and volunteers to outline appropriate boundaries in personal relations.”
Many were surprised that Pope Francis, in Number 9, asked “to raise the [church’s] minimum age for marriage to sixteen years.” At the press briefing, Archbishop Scicluna noted that currently it is 16 for boys and 14 for girls, but bishops’ conferences can change that according to existing church legislation.
Some advocates from victim-survivor groups were less than happy with the pope’s 21 points. Many agreed with Peter Isely, founder of the international group Ending Clergy Abuse, that number 15, for example, did not amount to “zero tolerance.”
At a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 20, he stated that zero tolerance should have “a dual aspect”: the dismissal from the priesthood of a priest who abuses children and the dismissal from the priesthood of a bishop who covers up abuse.
Archbishop Scicluna, on the other hand, recalled that the organizers of the summit had met for almost two hours on Feb. 20 with representatives of the different victim-survivor groups and had noted the different proposals that they wanted the summit to address. He made clear that this information is being taken into account.
Participants will meet again tomorrow, for the second day of the summit, and will focus on “accountability,” and on Saturday, Feb. 23, they will discuss the issue of “transparency.” Pope Pope Francis will deliver a major address after the closing Mass on Sunday, and there is much expectation about what he will say then.