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Gerard O’ConnellMay 05, 2023
Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, speaks to Pope Francis during an audience with commission members at the Vatican May 5, 2023.  (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“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,” Pope Francis said in his keynote address to members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on May 5. But, he said, “now is the time to repair the damage done to previous generations and to those who continue to suffer.”

The pope met the commission while it is holding its plenary assembly in Rome (May 2 to May 6) at a time when many questions have been raised about its organization, governance and direction following the resignation at the end of March of Hans Zollner, S.J. The Jesuit priest, who had been a founding member along with Cardinal Seán O’Malley, resigned citing his concerns about the commission regarding “the areas of responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.” The cardinal, who serves as the commission’s president and is the only remaining member of the original group still on the commission, publicly disagreed with Father Zollner’s assessment, and their open dispute has raised considerable unease among abuse survivors and in the Roman Curia.

In his speech today, however, Francis made no explicit reference to the dispute, nor did he mention that the commission has moved into a new office in a Roman palace, as publicized in a recent article in The New York Times.

Pope Francis established the commission in 2014 on the recommendation of the Council of Cardinals. Then as now, the commission included lay men and women as well as victims of abuse, but much has changed since then, including its membership, leadership and above all the commission’s integration into the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that deals with abuse cases. Questions remain about how the commission and the dicastery are meant to work together.

Pope Francis began by noting that this was his first meeting with the commission since it was “formally established within the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith” and said that “in order to face today’s challenges with wisdom and courage, it is important to pause for a moment and reflect on the past” because “over the last decade, we have all learned a great deal, myself included.”

Pope Francis to abuse commission: "This is the moment of reparation."

Calling sexual abuse "one of the greatest challenges for the church in our time,” Francis emphasized that “the sexual abuse crisis is particularly serious for the church because it undermines her ability to fully embrace and bear witness to God’s liberating presence.”

“The failure to act properly to halt this evil and to assist its victims has sullied our witness to God’s love,” the pope said.

To address this failure, he said he had confirmed that the decree “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” is henceforth a universal law of the Catholic Church. Among other things, the papal decree requires “setting aside places for receiving accusations and caring for those who report that they have been harmed” in every diocese.

He also declared that this is “the moment of reparation” for these failures. Asserting that “no one today can honestly claim to be unaffected by the reality of sexual abuse in the church,” Francis asked the commission “to bear in mind the following three principles and to consider them as part of a spirituality of reparation.”

First of all, he said, “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,” Francis said, “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.” But, he said, “do not grow discouraged when it seems that little is changing for the better. Persevere and keep moving forward!”

“It is not right that the most prosperous areas of the world should have well-trained and well-funded safeguarding programmes, where victims and their families are respected, while in other parts of the world they suffer in silence."

Second, Francis said, “sexual abuse has opened many wounds in our world, not only in the church. Many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse that took place years ago, yet [it] continues to be an obstacle and a source of brokenness in their lives.”

“Yet,” he said, “our lives are not meant to remain divided. What is broken must not stay broken.” He cited a recent meeting he had with abuse survivors and how being “heard and believed” had helped restore the victims’ sense of hope. The pope asked the commission members “to help put pieces back together, in the hope that what is broken can be repaired.”

As a third way to reparation, Francis encouraged the commission “to cultivate an approach that mirrors the respect and kindness of God himself.” He recalled the words of the American poet and activist Maya Angelou, who wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Drawing on these words, Francis urged commission members to “be gentle in your actions, bearing one another’s burdens (cf. Gal 6:1-2), without complaining, but considering that this moment of reparation for the church will give way to a further moment in the history of salvation.”

Pope Francis said, “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.” He said, “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.” He emphasized that “a culture of safeguarding will only take root if there is a pastoral conversion in this regard among the church’s leaders.”

He encouraged the commission’s “plans for addressing inequalities within the church through training programs and assistance to victims in Africa, Asia and Latin America.” He insisted, “It is not right that the most prosperous areas of the world should have well-trained and well-funded safeguarding programmes, 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. Here too, the church must seek to be a model of acceptance and good practice.”

He urged them to continue efforts “to improve guidelines and standards for the conduct of clergy and religious” and asked the commission to provide him with “an annual report on what you consider to be working well or otherwise, so that appropriate changes can be made.” The pope had previously asked the commission for annual reports on the safeguarding efforts in churches around the world.

Pope Francis recalled that he had encouraged them last year “to share your expertise on the various ways in which you believe the work of the Roman Curia can help in the protection of minors.” and commended the commission for the “cooperation agreement” it signed with the Dicastery for Evangelization “given its vast outreach to many of the world’s most distant areas.”

He praised the group for the work they had done in these past six months and imparted his blessing to them.

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