This weekend, Pope Francis delivered a video address and Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley delivered the keynote to open a four-day conference in Warsaw, “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children.” This conference comes as the Church begins to reckon with the global scope of the scourge of sexual abuse by clergy, where in recent years details of the crisis have come to light, not only in Poland, but in other Eastern European countries such as Slovenia and Croatia as well.
Cardinal O’Malley, who turned 77 in June, has been the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since it was established in 2014. Friday on his blog, the cardinal shared some photos and thoughts about the commission’s meeting in Rome last week. The cardinal has long been at the forefront of addressing the crisis; for example, prior to his assignment in Boston to replace the disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law in 2003, he had been appointed as bishop of Fall River, Massachusetts, and Palm Beach, Florida, following abuse scandals in those dioceses.
During his keynote speech, Cardinal O’Malley emphasized three themes that are integral to reform and conversion in the Church: listening, acknowledging survivors, and seeking forgiveness. On listening, he said, “When someone who has been abused by clergy, religious or other persons in the Church tells their story, we must receive them and their testimony with the utmost reverence.”
Acknowledgement, the cardinal said, is vital. He pointed out how “a skeptical and sometimes even demeaning response to the testimony of abuse can cause serious damage to the people the Church is called to hold as a priority for pastoral care and concern, namely, those broken and wounded by abusive ministers within the Church itself.”
One of the newest members of the Pontifical Commission is Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who fought for years for the Church to listen to him and believe his story. In 2018, Pope Francis accused Cruz and other survivors of “calumny.” Shortly thereafter, however, Francis sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta and Msgr. Jorge Bertomeu Farnós as his envoys to investigate the situation in Chile, who returned to him with a 2,300-page report, including the testimonies of survivors. Francis wrote to the bishops of Chile that Scicluna and Bertomeu “acknowledged that they had felt overwhelmed by the pain of so many victims of serious abuses of conscience and of power and, in particular, of sexual abuse committed against minors by various consecrated people in your country, which, denied at the time, robbed them of their innocence.” The pain is real, the damage done to lives is real, and we must acknowledge those who are suffering with empathy and compassion.
We must seek forgiveness from survivors as well. Cardinal O’Malley reminded us that in many cases survivors have been “rejected in their suffering by the Church itself.” This is, in many ways, a second wound inflicted by the Church. The leaders of the Church cannot resort to defensiveness, he said, especially when there are wounds that need to be healed.
Pope Francis said in his address, “I encourage you to listen to the cry of the victims and to dedicate yourselves, with each other and with society in a broader sense, in these important discussions because they truly touch the future of the Church in Central and Eastern Europe – not only the Church’s future, but the hearts of Christians as well. This is our responsibility.”
In his conclusion, Pope Francis began by invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, “With malice toward none and charity toward all, I urge you to be humble instruments of the Lord, at the service of the victims of abuse, considering them as companions and protagonists of a common future, learning from each other and become more faithful and resilient so that, together, we might face the challenges of the future.”
In his Angelus address this morning, Pope Francis continued to speak on our Christian call to service. His words remind us of the tendency to look away when we are not personally affected by a problem, a disaster, a disease, or a plague. Sometimes it is easy to ignore a problem—to ignore the people whose lives have been upended and make everything about ourselves. Francis told us to ask ourselves, “Am I, who follow Jesus, interested in the one who is neglected? Or am I rather seeking personal gratification, like the disciples that day? Do I understand life in terms of competing to make room for myself at others’ expense, or do I believe that being first means serving? And, concretely: do I dedicate time to a ‘little one,’ to a person who has no means to pay me back?”
These words, of course are applicable to many situations. But we must realize, in the case of survivors, not only must we serve them, but they are integral leaders and coworkers in the process of reform, renewal, and conversion. I am often struck by how many survivors don’t simply walk away from the Church in disgust. Some do, certainly. And who can blame them? But there are also survivors who are actively working to heal the Church, to teach other Catholics about preventing abuse and how to help those who have been abused. If there are any heroes in this horrible crisis, it is those survivors who have continued to tell the truth in charity and who are encouraging and inspiring us to respond to the call of Christ.
Image: Vatican News