Pope Francis’ landmark four-day summit on the prevention of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church turned out to be less about taking actions and more about making strong statements. The summit saw 190 Catholic bishops and leaders of various religious orders from around the world in attendance.
Recognising and resolving to address the problem that has had a debilitating impact on the institution’s moral authority all around the world, the summit did mark a historic moment for the Vatican.
The Pope called “for an all-out battle against abuse of minors”, insisting the Church must protect children “from ravenous wolves”. His speech, while heavy with rhetoric and pledges, fell short of laying out an immediate battle plan “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission”.
But with the gates of dialogue finally open, victims and Catholics are now pressing the Vatican for concrete action.
All optics, no substance
The summit in Rome comes on the heels of the controversy surrounding former archbishop and
A review board found the allegations “credible and substantiated”.
The meeting also happened in the wake of a damning Pennsylvania grand jury report six months ago, which detailed widespread sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in the state; the issue had reportedly become Vatican’s biggest crisis in modern times.
The BBC, in a report just before the conference, said the integrity of the Catholic Church rides on its outcome.
Yet, no sweeping law was introduced to punish bishops covering up abuse or report abusive clergy members to the authorities; no files released or global reporting requirement endorsed.
A voice at last
But with Pope Francis putting his foot down, saying they are collectively responsible for protecting the children in their care and that priests who violate them must be punished, the Church has finally tendered its official response and it was a strong message.
That is a start.
“In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons,” the pontiff said.
The summit also invited a handful of women to address the gathering; it was them who drove the message home most forcefully. For an institution that has historically denied its women entry to higher echelons or major decision-making powers, this gesture spoke volumes about the future of women in the Catholic Church.
Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, superior of her religious order, castigated the male clergy members for their decades of silence over priests’ “atrocities”; she warned them that they would be judged for their inaction going forward.
Valentina Alazraki, the longtime Vatican correspondent for Mexico’s Televisa, challenged the men in power to decide whose side they were on—the victims or the accused priests.
“We have decided which side to be on,” Alazraki addressed the summit. She warned that unless the hierarchy sides with victims, “journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies”.
Survivors narrate ordeals
The searing testimony of a woman raped as a child for five years by a priest, leaving behind a lifetime of trauma, eating disorders, depression, and suicide attempts, reportedly brought the bishops and religious superiors to a stunned, shameful silence.
She told them that she had wanted to tell them something about her childhood but couldn’t because, since she was 11, “I, who loved colouring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed.”
“Instead, engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body, and soul are all the times he immobilised me, the child, with superhuman strength.”
How the Pope missed the mark
Clergy sexual abuse is rampant all over the world, slowly acquiring centre stage as one of the most egregious and widespread cases of institutional abuse over the last decade. BBC reports that priests assaulted more than 3,600 children in Germany between 1946 and 2014.
Priests have sexually assaulted nuns as well. In the storm of the #MeToo movement, the Pope acknowledged that the clergy had been mistreating nuns to the point of “sexual slavery”.
But it wasn’t until the scandals began to attack the credibility of the papacy that the Vatican took note and acknowledged its role in mitigating the problem. In 2002 for the first time, the Boston
In a massive disappointment, despite raising expectations for a policy breakthrough in September, Pope Francis refrained from using his absolute authority to institute a church-wide law to dismiss abusive priests and the bishops who shield them.
Instead, the summit saw the head of the Catholic Church trying to persuade
The prelates who organised the summit argued that papal edicts may not be fully binding after Francis’s term ends. In their view, a broad cultural shift and an acknowledgement of the problem, especially in Latin American, African and Asian countries, where the future of the Church lies, is must.
‘There is no going back’
The Vatican, in the coming days, will likely issue a new child protection policy for the Vatican City State.
The hope is that the summit will bring about a change in the attitude of bishops; they continue to be sceptical that abuse happens in their dioceses in some parts of the world.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor, told reporters his main takeaway was the recognition within the Church that “abuse of minors is an egregious crime, but so is cover-up”.
A guidebook for bishops around the world, explaining how to investigate and prosecute abuse cases, is also on the cards. Besides, task forces at the regional or continental level will be established to offer expert help to dioceses in poorer countries lacking legal resources.
Time for action and accountability
There is plenty more the Vatican can do for women and minors, and ensure investigation is followed by punitive action. It can extend the statutes of limitations for sexual abuse, for a start, as it often takes decades for abuse victims to come forward, if they ever do.
Most critics of the Church expressed outrage and disappointment at Francis’s failure to outline concrete change. Equally important is that the summit focused on crimes against minors, instead of addressing the entirety of the abuse problem.
The Catholic community now demands and deserves action akin to the defrocking of McCarrick or the conviction of Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell on Monday. Pell, once the third-most senior Catholic in the world, had to leave Pope Francis’ inner circle after a unanimous verdict last December found him guilty on five charges of child sexual abuse.
But before anything, the Church needs to identify and sanction clergy members involved in
Why it matters to you
Last week itself, Archbishop of Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias, tipped by some as the next Pope, admitted he had failed to respond quickly or support the victims in at least two cases of sexual abuse.
India’s Catholics say there is a culture of fear and silence in the Catholic Church about sexual abuse by priests. Those who have dared to speak out say it has been an ordeal.
Last year, a group of Keralite nuns broke decades of silence and “decorum” to come forward against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, after a fellow nun accused him of rape and sexual assault between 2014 and 2016.
This is one of the most well-known cases of sexual abuse related to the Catholic Church in India; it has seen an outpouring of support for protesters ostracised by their congregation and families for fighting the much-needed fight. Mulakkal’s name, on the other hand, was cleared and he was welcomed back at his diocese with open arms.
Scroll reports a slew of assault cases by priests: In 2014, the police arrested a Kannur vicar for molesting a nine-year-old; in 2016, a priest was sentenced for raping a 14-year-old in Thrissur; and in 2017, another vicar from Kannur allegedly raped and impregnated a 16-year-old girl.
At the conference, abuse victims, frustrated faithful, and church leaders railed against the Church hiding crimes and silencing victims. But just their voices may not change their minds.
Reveren Hans Zollner, a leader in the Church’s efforts to safeguard children, called this summit a “leap” forward in attacking the “systemic roots” of the scandal.
In reality, it is only a begrudging step towards
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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