The Catholic Church can lead the world in responding properly to the scourge of child sexual abuse, according to participants in a Vatican-backed conference on the subject.
“Towards Healing and Renewal” was held at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University February 6-9, and included presentations from senior Vatican officials as well as experts on the issue of child safeguarding from around the world. Attendees also heard praise for Pope Benedict’s role in tackling abuse, with Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) insisting that instead of “attacks by the media,” the Holy Father deserves “the gratitude of us all, in the Church and outside it.”
The conference aimed at sharing the experiences of countries like the United States, Ireland, and Britain with bishops and religious superiors in the developing world to ensure that the same mistakes and failures to respond appropriately to abuse allegations were not repeated. An online educational initiative called the Center for Child Protection was launched during the conference, offering training programs in multiple languages and giving Church leaders the opportunity to easily share experience and advice on how to deal with cases of abuse.
While the Church has failed dramatically to respond properly to abuse by priests and religious in the past, “there are clear signs of progress and hope” according to the Catholic University of America’s Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, who has spent many years treating abusers and working to ensure that policies for dealing with abuse are robust.
Msgr. Rossetti told representatives of more than 100 episcopal conferences that “an increasing number of bishops from several countries have intervened decisively and effectively when allegations of child sexual abuse have surfaced.”
He said the Church now stands at a crossroads where countries that have experienced the abuse crisis can help other countries ensure that children are protected. “Does each country around the world have to go through this same agonizing process?” Msgr. Rossetti asked. “The Church now knows the essential elements of an effective child-safe program. We ought to implement them today around the world.”
“If the Catholic Church were proactively to implement and strongly enforce such a worldwide child-safe program, it would become what it is called to be: an international leader in promoting the safety and welfare of children,” Msgr. Rossetti said.
The symposium was held as bishops’ conferences in every country are preparing draft guidelines on handling abuse allegations that must be submitted to the CDF for approval. A deadline of May has been set to ensure that there are robust procedures in place worldwide.
In his remarks to the symposium attendees, Cardinal Levada underlined the fact that child sexual abuse is not just a crime under canon law, but also a crime under civil law. He insisted that Church leaders had an obligation to report “such crimes to the appropriate authorities.”
Referring to the need for every bishops’ conference in the world to adopt guidelines on handling abuse, Cardinal Levada said that while those conferences do not override the authority of each individual diocesan bishop, “no bishop or major superior may consider himself exempt from such collaboration.”
Cardinal Levada said that Pope Benedict, both during his tenure as prefect of the CDF and since being elected pope in 2005, acted decisively to deal with abusive clergy.
While praising bishops’ conferences that have adopted robust policies, the cardinal also acknowledged that “in many cases, such response came only in the wake of the revelation of scandalous behavior by priests in the public media.”
“What seems useful going forward is a more proactive approach by conferences of bishops throughout the world,” Cardinal Levada said.
In his remarks to the symposium, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of abuse crimes, denounced what he described as “a deadly culture of silence” on abuse, insisting that such silence is “in itself wrong and unjust.”
He said that “no strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability.”
Echoing Cardinal Levada’s call for cooperation with civil authorities, Msgr. Scicluna said that “sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict or a breach of a Code of Conduct internal to an institution, whether it be religious or other. It is also a crime prosecuted by civil law.”
Church leaders, he said, have “the duty to cooperate with state authorities in our response to child abuse.”
Speaking at a press conference following his presentation, Msgr. Scicluna returned to that point, insisting, “When I say cooperate with the civil authorities, I mean cooperate fully.”
Saying that the Church’s primary response to clerical sexual abuse must be to the truth, Msgr. Scicluna emphasized that “enemies of the truth are the deliberate denial of known facts and the misplaced concern that the good name of the institution should somehow enjoy absolute priority to the detriment of legitimate disclosure of crime.”
Msgr. Scicluna also warned that bishops and religious superiors must make those who have suffered abuse their paramount priority. He stressed “the radical need of the victim to be heard attentively, to be understood and believed, to be treated with dignity as he or she plods on the tiresome journey of recovery and healing.”
Msgr. Rossetti also emphasized the fact that the needs of a person who makes an allegation must override all other concerns. “There are false allegations to be sure. It is critical that we do all that we can to restore a priest’s good name once it is determined that the allegations are false,” he said. “However, decades of experience tell us that the vast majority of allegations, over 95 percent, are founded. There is little benefit, and much to be lost, for a person to come forward and to allege that he or she was sexually molested by a priest.”
“It takes courage to do so and a willingness to suffer blame and ridicule,” he said.
Marie Collins, an Irishwoman who was abused as a child, told the conference attendees that those who suffered abuse needed spiritual support to regain faith as well as psychological help.
“My faith in God has not been touched,” she said, but added that her one regret is “that I can rarely bring myself to practice my Catholic religion.”
“I think sometimes the Church is reluctant to reach out spiritually because it will be rejected,” Collins told Catholic World Report.
“Spiritual outreach will be rejected by some victims, but others would welcome it,” she said.
However, Collins said “there is often a feeling from bishops that victims are outside the Church or that victims want no spiritual help. This is often not the case. Many victims whose faith has been profoundly damaged by abuse would welcome help and spiritual support aimed at regaining our Catholic faith.”
Collins said she believed the Rome conference was a “hopeful sign” that Church leaders were taking the issue very seriously. “I am hopeful, I am very positive about this conference,” she said. “That bishops and Church leaders from other parts of the world will listen and learn from the experiences where things have been handled badly.”
“I am hopeful that the conference is a sign of a new attitude and I am also given hope by the fact that the Pope is so clearly behind this conference and supporting it,” she said.
Collins also participated in a penitential vigil presided over by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. The cardinal said the abuse was “a source of great shame and enormous scandal.”
It is the first time that such a gathering has been held in Rome, and the fact that it was presided over by the Church’s most-senior official responsible for the appointment of bishops is an indication that the event was aimed not only at repentance for abuse, but at recognizing the failings of Church leaders as well.
Cardinal Ouellet said the Church had to “listen carefully” to victims and “to believe their painful stories.”
“Once again, we apologize to the victims,” he said, lamenting their “terrible and humiliating experience.”
During the vigil, Collins read a prayer on behalf of all victims, praying, “Lord, as one acquainted with great sorrows, you know how difficult it is for us to forgive those who have done us evil, and only your love can open ourselves to this gift: we ask you for the strength to unite us to the forgiveness that, from the cross, you made descend upon sinful humanity as a healing balm, so that also thy Church may be healed by our forgiveness.”
“Forgive them,” she concluded.
Collins later told Catholic World Report that she hoped the event would lead to greater accountability in the Church. “Apologizing for the actions of the abusive priests is not enough,” she said. “There must be acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the lives of victims and their families by the often deliberate cover-up and mishandling of cases by their superiors before I or other victims can find real peace and healing.”
Echoing that call for accountability, Msgr. Scicluna said it is simply “not acceptable” for bishops to ignore guidelines on handling abuse. He said the Church in Ireland, for example, “has paid a very high price for the mistakes of some of its shepherds.”
“When set standards are not followed, this is unacceptable,” he said.
Despite the dark nature of the subject under discussion, the atmosphere at the symposium was overwhelmingly positive.
Msgr. Rossetti, summing up the overall mood of the gathering, told delegates that he is hopeful about the future. “In recent years, I have witnessed the tremendous strides that the Church has made, with the strong support from our Holy Father, in combating this evil,” he said. “I know that this growing consciousness will, and must, spread throughout the world.”
He said the Church’s calling “is to become the voice of millions of abused children. We must stand in the corner of those who are hurt and suffering.”
“One day victims of child sexual abuse will look upon us, not as their foe, but as their advocates and their friends. That day is not yet fully here and so we are not yet fully the Church we are called to be,” Msgr. Rossetti said. “The Catholic Church is a large, international body with a 2,000 year history. It is slow to change. But when it finally gathers its intellectual strength and moral conviction, and focuses on that which is right, the power of its voice is unstoppable.”