(February 21st, 2019 — Rome) The highest-level Catholic meeting on the most terrible ecclesiastical crisis in 500 years opened in Rome on Thursday in the almost surreal conditions created by a heady atmosphere of intense media attention and a swirling maelstrom that threatened to swallow already low expectations.
The first surprise of the day was Pope Francis’ list of 21 “points for reflection” — no one was expecting them. No one needed them. They came, by Francis’ own admission, from the participants in the meeting — making them appear to be at once peremptory and redundant.
“They are guidelines to assist in our reflection,” Pope Francis told participants, “a simple point of departure that came from you and now return to you.” He hastened to add, “They are not meant to detract from the creativity needed in this meeting.”
Be that as it may, the way in which one intends things and how they are received — how one ought reasonably to expect one’s audience to receive them — are often two very much different things. How such reasonable expectation ought to inform one’s casting of ideas, especially when one is in a position of power, is always a difficult business to negotiate.
The moderator of the meeting, Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, described the 21 reflection points as “the result of his reflection, of his collection of ideas, which give us a lively sense of concreteness.”
Fr. Lombardi said the meeting “started on the right foot,” noting how Pope Francis’ very brief opening remarks — they were half a single-spaced page — touched on all the keywords: from listening and synodality, to parrhesia — which is frankness, forthrightness, directness of speech — to the aforementioned concreteness, to conversion and purification. Fr. Lombardi is right: the Pope’s speech hit them all.
The participants heard harrowing, withering testimony from victims, as well.
Juan Carlos Cruz — the only survivor-witness to reveal his identity — told the participants, “You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith.”
Another victim told of abuse she suffered during the course of a thirteen-year relationship with a priest that began when she was aged 15. “I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times,” the woman recounted, “quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives.” The woman went on to say, “At first I trusted him so much that I did not know he could abuse me. I was afraid of him, and every time I refused to have sex with him, he would beat me.”
Another victim was a religious priest, who had been abused as a teenager, and only brought his suffering to the attention of Church authority many years after he had suffered it. “First, I wrote a letter to the bishop, six months later, I had a meeting with the priest. The bishop did not answer me, and after six months, I wrote to the nuncio. The nuncio reacted showing understanding. Then I met the bishop and he attacked me without trying to understand me, and this hurt me.”
Another victim said the thing that has left the worst wound is, “the full realization of the total loss of the innocence of my youth and how that has affected me today.” This victim went on to say, “There’s still pain in my family relationships. There’s still pain with my siblings. I still carry pain. My parents still carry pain at the dysfunction, the betrayal, the manipulation that this bad man, who was our Catholic priest at the time, wrought upon my family and myself.”
The fifth and final victim to give witness said, “If we want to save the Church, we need to get our act together and [bring] the perpetrators to book.”
In his opening remarks, Pope Francis said, “The holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken.” That is certainly true, but it is not all that the faithful expect.
“There’s nothing different in here than there was yesterday,” said abuse survivor and victim-advocate Peter Isely in remarks quoted by Crux in reference to Pope Francis’s 21 reflection points. “Where is it in these points that if you’re a bishop or a cardinal and you’ve covered up child sex crimes, that you’re going to be removed from the priesthood or that any action will be taken against you?”
Both in the meeting and on the sidelines — the outskirts, if you will, or the peripheries — victims have been looking not only for “concrete and effective measures” from Church leadership, but for something else. They have been looking for justice. They want a reckoning.
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