The meeting on the sexual abuse of young people in the Church, held from February 21-24, is over. Prelates from all over the world now return to their countries with a clearer idea of Pope Francis’s intentions for the Church’s approach to this serious issue, as well as what is expected of them as leaders and pastors in the Church.
Pope Francis’ closing remarks had some strong language:
The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility. Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan. In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children. No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children. We need to recognize with humility and courage that we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable, for they are an image of Jesus. For this reason, the Church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside the Church. She feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.
Here again I would state clearly: if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness. Brothers and Sisters: in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.
It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness. The abuse of power is likewise present in the other forms of abuse affecting almost 85,000,000 children, forgotten by everyone: child soldiers, child prostitutes, starving children, children kidnapped and often victimized by the horrid commerce of human organs or enslaved, child victims of war, refugee children, aborted children and so many others.
Before all this cruelty, all this idolatrous sacrifice of children to the god of power, money, pride and arrogance, empirical explanations alone are not sufficient. They fail to make us grasp the breadth and depth of this tragedy. Here once again we see the limitations of a purely positivistic approach. It can provide us with a true explanation helpful for taking necessary measures, but it is incapable of giving us a meaning. Today we need both explanation and meaning. Explanation will help us greatly in the operative sphere, but will take us only halfway.
So what would be the existential “meaning” of this criminal phenomenon? In the light of its human breadth and depth, it is none other than the present-day manifestation of the spirit of evil. If we fail to take account of this dimension, we will remain far from the truth and lack real solutions.
Brothers and sisters, today we find ourselves before a manifestation of brazen, aggressive and destructive evil. Behind and within, there is the spirit of evil, which in its pride and in its arrogance considers itself the Lord of the world and thinks that it has triumphed. I would like to say this to you with the authority of a brother and a father, certainly a small one and a sinner, but who is the pastor of the Church that presides in charity: in these painful cases, I see the hand of evil that does not spare even the innocence of the little ones. And this leads me to think of the example of Herod who, driven by fear of losing his power, ordered the slaughter of all the children of Bethlehem. Behind this there is satan.
Two of the most important and powerful addresses at the summit were given by women.
The first, given by Sr. Veronica Openibo, SHCJ, the leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, of Nigeria, decried the culture of secrecy that has surround the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, and emphasized how this has hindered the Church in carrying out her mission:
At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission. Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope for us in building the Reign of God?
One issue where she called for reflection and reform was in the area of the formation of seminarians and those in religious life, and the need to improve teaching on sexual matters, as well as avoid creating an attitude of clericalism in the course of their education and training:
I want to say here: essential, surely, is a clear and balanced education and training about sexuality and boundaries in the seminaries and formation houses; in the ongoing formation of priests, religious men, and women and bishops. It worries me when I see in Rome, and elsewhere, our country included, the youngest seminarians being treated as though they are more special than everyone else, thus ideas about the status, exalted ideas about their status. This is encouraged because they assume they have already high status. The study of human development, human for mission, must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminaries. I want to repeat that: the study of human development, human for mission, must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminaries. The formation of young women religious, too, can often lead to a false sense of superiority over their lay sisters and brothers, that their calling is a ‘higher’ one. What damage has that thinking done to the mission of the church? Have we forgotten the reminder by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes of the universal call to holiness? In addition, we need to ask responsible and sensitive lay people and women religious to give true and honest evaluation of candidates for episcopal appointments.
The second was given by Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. In her address she called for greater transparency in the Church and the role of journalists in uncovering scandal:
How many times have I heard that the scandal of abuse is “the press’ fault, that it is a plot by certain media outlets to discredit the Church, that there are hidden powers backing it in order to put an end to this institution”.
We journalists know that there are reporters who are more thorough than others and that there are media outlets more or less dependent on political, ideological or economic interests. But I believe that in no case can the mass media be blamed for having uncovered or reported on the abuse.
Abuses against minors are neither rumors nor gossip: they are crimes. I remember Pope Benedict XVI’s words during the flight to Lisbon when he told us that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from external enemies but arises from sins within her.
I would like you to leave this hall with the conviction that we journalist are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice.
She also commented on the contributions of the greatly needed voices of women in the meeting:
Thank you, too, for providing women religious, through the executive of the Union of Superiors General (UISG), an opportunity to participate in this conference. This is the first time ever that we have had all the members of the executing of the women come to a meeting like this. Usually, the men come, but the women we were “pick three people and it must be this, this, this…”. Women have acquired a lot of useful experience to offer in this field and have already done much to support victims – there are women who are also offenders – and also to work creatively on their own use of power and authority.
Only time will tell whether the Church will change her approach, prioritizing the protection and well-being of the vulnerable over secrecy and preferring the avoidance of scandal over justice. Let us hope that the bishops of the world take their words to heart. There is much work to be done.
Image: Sr. Veronica Openibo
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.