Sex Abuse Scandals Rock Dubious Focolare Movement

News: World News
by Jules Gomes  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  April 3, 2023   

Pope Francis supports move to canonize heterodox founder Chiara Lubich

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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - The global Focolare Movement is being rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals in which the controversial Catholic organization admits to uncovering at least 66 abusers between 2014–2022.

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Pope Francis with leaders of the Focolare Movement

The movement, known for its heterodox emphasis on uniting members of different religions into one family, published the findings of an independent investigation on Friday asking the victims for forgiveness and expressing "pain" and "shame" for the abuse.

The abusers listed in the report include five priests or religious, 53 lay persons (including 32 who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) and four minors. Of the abusers, 63 were male and three were female. 

The report also includes four abusers who were not part of the movement but perpetrated abuse "within the premises or on the occasion of activities promoted by the Movement," according to the report. 

The worldwide movement, which is seeking the canonization of its founder, Chiara Lubich — a move endorsed by Pope Francis in 2015 — acknowledged that abuse had been committed in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.  

The largest number of victims (29) were between 14 and 18 years old, 17 of the victims were vulnerable adults, and 13 were children under 14 years old. There were also two reports of possession of child pornography. 

The Movement had to open itself to this dialogue with the people of all religious traditions.

Focolare reported only nine abusers to the judicial authorities while dismissing 20 from the movement and suspending nine from its ranks. 

'Systemic Failure' to Stop Grooming

In January 2022, Focolare released its report on Jean-Michel Merlin, a former French consecrated member of the movement who groomed not only children and adolescents but also their parents, as well as members of the group over a period of 30 years.

Merlin's victims were all male. Twenty-six victims gave oral or written testimony of the abuse he inflicted on them, and 11 other victims reported to the inquiry through third parties.


 

"The pyramidal structure of the Movement, its mantra of obedience and unity has certainly contributed to the systemic failure to deal with not only the case against JMM but also other cases," the report admitted. 

Many layers of people "at the highest governing level" ignored concerns about Merlin, even though they "were informed about the fact that 'something was wrong' with [Merlin] and he needed to be kept under surveillance," it added.  

The pyramidal structure of the Movement, its mantra of obedience and unity has certainly contributed to the systemic failure.

The movement said it would consider requests for financial reparations from victims as part of "a process of reparative justice." 

"Support for the victims should be carried out in a much more ample way than economic help and ... no reparation can eliminate or compensate for the serious harm caused by the abuse," the Focolare leadership noted.  

In response to the abuse crisis, the movement conducted basic safeguarding training for "17,000 people on all continents, with participants belonging to various Christian churches and some from other religions," the report stated.

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Margaret Karram, president of the Focolare Movement

In May 2022, Margaret Karram, president of the Focolare Movement, made it compulsory for every member worldwide, including children, to attend at least one basic course on the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

Unity vs. Safety?

Founded in Trent, Italy, in 1942, the Focolare Movement includes Christians of different churches and ecclesial communities, members of the major world religions and people of no religious belief.

The movement claims a membership of over 10,000 adherents. Each member adheres to the goal and spirit of Focolare while faithfully following the precepts of their own faith and conscience.

Focolare aims at spreading the message of unity and brotherhood worldwide and is "inspired by Jesus' prayer to the Father, 'May they all be one' (Jn 17:21)," the group's website states.

Lubich claimed to have had 'the deep sensation that everyone present, although from different faiths, were like a single family.' 

When Chiara Lubich was awarded the Templeton Prize for progress in religion in 1977, the site states, she presented her experience before leaders of different religions. Lubich claimed to have had "the deep sensation that everyone present, although from different faiths, were like a single family." 

"As she left," the site continues, "it was precisely the people from other religious traditions (Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindu, etc.) who were the first to step up and offer their warm congratulations. This appeared to be evidence that the spirituality of the Movement ... could be shared not only by Christians, but, to some measure, even with persons of other faiths." 

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Abuser Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche community

"For Chiara, these events were a sign from God, showing that the Movement had to open itself to this dialogue with the people of all religious traditions," it adds. 

Lay Leaders in Focus

The abuse of vulnerable adults by Catholic lay leaders was brought into sharp focus after an explosive report published at the end of January revealed that celebrity Catholic and founder of the L'Arche community, Jean Vanier, had sexually abused at least 25 women, Church Militant reported.

Vanier, an influential advocate for celibacy, colluded with his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe, to manipulate women with religious vocations, including nuns, into sexual relationships using "incestuous representations of relationships between Jesus and Mary," the report stated.

The compilers of the report concluded that L'Arche was "founded to serve as a screen for the activities of the group of 'initiates'" who indulged in a perverse form of coercive psycho-spiritual sexual behavior.

Last week, Pope Francis updated his signature decree Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which aims to stamp out clerical sex abuse, by replacing the category of "vulnerable person" in the 2019 version with the new category of "vulnerable adult." 

The updated legislation, issued by the pontiff as a motu proprio, also covers lay leaders of Catholic movements and organizations who perpetrate or cover up sex abuse.

Despite its unorthodox beliefs and practices, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all endorsed the Focolare Movement. 

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