By Martin Bürger
Since Thursday morning, the summit on "The Protection of Minors in the Church" is underway in Rome. The meeting started out with brief opening remarks, in which Pope Francis recalled the purpose of having almost 200 bishops and superiors of religious communities come together. Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it's the job of the participants to "hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice."
Instead of presenting abstract ideas, the Pope said, "We need to be concrete."
Pope Francis had guidelines distributed to the participants of the summit, which are based on criteria formulated beforehand by the conferences of bishops all over the world. As the Pope cautioned, "They are not meant to detract from the creativity needed in this meeting." He concluded by calling on Our Lady to "enlighten us as we seek to heal the grave wounds that the scandal of pedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers."
The first of two main presentations on Thursday morning in Rome was given by Cdl. Luis Tagle of Manila. The speech, which was also distributed in writing by the Holy See Press Office, was titled "The Smell of the Sheep: Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the core of the shepherd's task."
According to Tagle:
The abuse of minors by ordained ministers has inflicted wounds not only on the victims, but also on their families, the clergy, the Church, the wider society, the perpetrators themselves and the bishops. But, it is also true, we humbly and sorrowfully admit, that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims and in fact the entire body of Christ.
The wisdom of comparing the singular experience of victims of sexual abuse with the "wounds" inflicted on the perpetrators and bishops, all within the first sentence, can certainly be questioned.
Cardinal Tagle offers a meditation on the apparition of the risen Lord Jesus Christ to Thomas. The apostle puts his finger into the wounds of Christ and is lead to exclaim, "My Lord and my God!" Tagle asks, "What can we learn from this intimate encounter?" The explanation he proceeds to offer seems rather forced, saying, "Seeing and touching the wounds of Christ in the wounds of humanity is a condition for authentic faith."
Our people need us to draw close to their wounds and acknowledge our faults if we are to give authentic and credible witness to our faith in the Resurrection. This means that each of us and our brothers and sisters at home must take personal responsibility for bringing healing to this wound in the body of Christ and make the commitment to do everything in our power and capacity to see that children are safe, are cared for in our communities.
Tagle calls on the participants of the summit "to put aside any hesitation to draw close to the wounds of our people out of fear of being wounded ourselves." This doesn't appear to be a problem today, where many Catholics don't trust their priests enough to even consider letting them "draw close" to their wounds.
The notion of justice, of severely punishing the perpetrators of abuse, is almost entirely absent. Tagle skips that important step in the healing process by stating, "Once justice is served, how do we help the victims to heal from the effects of the abuse? Justice is necessary, but by itself does not heal the broken human heart." While the end result of the healing process should be forgiveness, as Cdl. Tagle indicates, he fails to recognize that without first serving justice, forgiveness is practically impossible.
The second talk in the morning was presented by Abp. Charles Scicluna of Malta, who also works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In his presentation, entitled "Taking Responsibility for Processing Cases of Sexual Abuse Crisis and for Prevention of Abuse," the 59-year-old went through the main steps to be undertaken in individual cases of sexual abuse of minors. The whole talk is less airy and vague than that of Cdl. Tagle, but more practical and to the point.
As a first step, "It is essential that the community be advised that they have the duty and the right to report sexual misconduct to a contact person in the diocese or religious order. These contact details should be in the public domain." On the one hand, established protocols should be followed, and on the other hand, the civil laws in place should be obeyed. Speedy investigation by experts of every accusation is key, explained the archbishop.
Secondly, the results of cases of sexual abuse of minors should be referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In passing, Scicluna also at least refers to a problem not mentioned by the previous speakers, namely that sexual "misconduct occurs between consenting adults."
Once the case is referred to the Vatican, a canonical penal process will take place.
"In our system, as it obtains at the present, the role of the victim of sexual abuse in canonical proceedings is limited," he said. "The pastoral solicitude of the ordinary will help make up for this lacuna." In that regard, the diocese or religious community is asked "to share information on the progress of the proceedings with the victim or the victims in the case."
While taking accusations of sexual abuse seriously, Abp. Scicluna calls for a fair process, not blanket condemnations against clergy:
The essence of a just process requires that the accused is presented with all arguments and evidence against him; that the accused is given the full benefit of the right of presenting his defense; that judgment is given based on the facts of the case and the law applicable to the case; that a reasoned judgment or decision is communicated in writing to the accused and that the accused enjoy a remedy against a judgment or decision that aggrieves him.
As far as prevention of sexual abuse of minors goes — the archbishop again refers to sexual misconduct in general as well — "the question of screening of future candidates remains of the essence."
According to Scicluna, "Specific lessons, seminars or courses on the protection of minors are to be included in the programs of initial and ongoing formation." Beyond that, the archbishop of Malta emphasized sound formation in morals and called on the superiors to "exercise their spiritual fatherhood" — a notion often forgotten today in talking about the hierarchy.
Finally, Abp. Scicluna wants to take better care regarding the selection of bishops. Without commenting on it, he points out that some are asking for more input from laypeople. In any case, "It is a grave sin against the integrity of the episcopal ministry to hide or underestimate facts that may indicate deficits in the lifestyle or spiritual fatherhood of priests subject to a pontifical investigation into their suitability for the office of bishop."
One more presentation is slated for Thursday afternoon. Both Friday and Saturday will feature three additional talks, each of which is followed by a short time for questions. While the talks themselves are made available online, the questions and answers probably won't be. Every day, the participants of the summit are scheduled to come together in working groups in order to discuss the problem of sexual abuse of minors in more detail.