Vatican: the Church has been anything but indifferent to clerical abuse

A view of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Jan. 25, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.
A view of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, Jan. 25, 2015. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

.- Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi cautioned Friday that the recent Oscar-win for “Spotlight” and the lengthy deposition of a top Vatican official on institutional responses to clerical sex abuse could paint a false picture of how the Church has responded to the issue.

“The sensationalistic presentation of these two events has meant that, for much of the public, especially if less informed or of short memory – thinking that the Church has done nothing or done very little to respond to these horrible tragedies,” Fr. Lombardi said in a March 4 statement.

An objective consideration of the facts, he said, “shows that this is not true.”

Fr. Lombardi referred to the media frenzy garnered by the film “Spotlight,” which recently won the Oscar for best picture for its portrayal of a journalistic investigation of the sex abuse crisis in Boston, as well as the Feb. 29-March 3 deposition of Cardinal George Pell before Australia’s Royal Commission.

As prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on reform of the Roman Curia, Cardinal Pell is the most senior Vatican official to have testified before a legal body on clerical sexual abuse.

In his statement, Fr. Lombardi said the events shouldn’t lead people to think that the Church has remained silent on the issue, and outlined several initiatives and reforms that have taken place since the Boston crisis broke out in 2002.

He said that we ought “to give credit” to Cardinal Pell and the group of 15 abuse survivors who traveled from Australia to Rome for the deposition, both for the cardinal’s “dignified and consistent” testimony, as well as the survivors’ willingness “to establish a constructive dialogue.”

Three of the abuse survivors from Catholic Diocese of Ballarat – David Ridsdale, Andrew Collins and Peter Blenkiron – took time to meet with Fr. Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, while in Rome.

They met with him twice, once Wednesday before meeting with Cardinal Pell, and then Friday morning before returning to Australia.

In a March 4 statement on the encounters, Fr. Zollner said the victims wanted to meet primarily to discuss ideas they have about “healing and the future to protect children from institutional abuse.”

Although they admitted that the problem of abuse is “wider than the Catholic Church,” they are most familiar the problems related to Church structures, and are eager to form partnerships to help address the issue.

Fr. Zollner said the victims spoke at length about models of education for children, parents and teachers so that effective changes can be made to ensure the safeguarding of children.

On his end, Fr. Zollner discussed his work on the commission in the areas of abuse prevention within the Church and outside of it, as well as his role as president of the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. 

The Ballarat survivors were also able to meet with a number of the students enrolled in of the Diploma-program in Safeguarding of Minors currently being offered at the Gregorian University.

Fr. Zollner ensured that he will take the victims’ proposals to the rest of the commission in order to both learn from their experience, and to “better understand how to prevent sexual abuse by those in service to the Church from happening again in the future.”

Below is CNA’s full English translation of Fr. Lombardi’s statement:

Cardinal Pell's deposition before the Royal Commission in direct transmission from Rome to Australia and the simultaneous administration of an Oscar for Best Film of Spotlight, on the role of the Boston Globe in denouncing the cover of numerous crimes of pedophile priests in Boston (primarily in the 1960s-80s), have been accompanied by a new wave of media attention and public opinion on the dramatic topic of the sexual abuse of minors, in particular on the part of clerics.

The sensationalistic presentation of these two events has meant that, for much of the public, especially if less informed or of short memory – thinking that the Church has done nothing or done very little to respond to these horrible tragedies and that we have to start again. An objective consideration shows that this is not true. The former archbishop of Boston (Cardinal Bernard Law) resigned in 2002 following the events which Spotlight speaks about (and after a famous meeting of American cardinals gathered in Rome by Pope John Paul II in April 2002), and since 2003 (13 years) the archdiocese has been governed by Cardinal Sean O'Malley, universally known for his rigor and wisdom in dealing with issues of sexual abuse, so much so that he was nominated by the Pope as one of his counselors and as President of the Commission he founded for the protection of minors.

The tragic events of sexual abuse in Australia are also the subject of investigations and legal and canonical procedures, (and have been) for many years. When Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Sydney for World Youth Day in 2008 (8 years ago) he met a small group of victims from the same archdiocese governed by Cardinal Pell, given that the story was already a strong topic and the Archbishop (Pell) felt that such a meeting was highly appropriate. 

Just to give an idea of the attention with which these problems were followed, the only section of the Vatican website dedicated to “Abuse of Minors: The Church's response,” was started around 10 years ago, and contains some 60 documents or speeches.

The courageous commitment popes have dedicated to confronting the crisis manifested in different countries and situations – such as the United States, Ireland, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, the Legionaries of Christ – has been neither small nor indifferent. The renewal of procedures and universal canonical norms; guidelines requested and formed on the part of episcopal conferences, not only to response to abuses committed but also to prevent them adequately; apostolic visits to intervene in the most serious situations and the profound reform of the Legionaries of Christ have all been actions intended to respond in-depth and with foresight to a plague that was manifested in surprising and devastating severity, above all in certain regions and certain periods. Benedict XVI's letter to Irish faithful from March 2010 probably remains the most eloquent reference document, well beyond just Ireland, to understand the attitude and the judicial, pastoral and spiritual response of popes to these tragedies of the Church of our time: the recognition of the serious mistakes made and asking forgiveness; priority attention and justice for the victims; conversion and purification; commitment to prevention and renewed human and spiritual formation.

The meetings of Benedict and Francis with groups of victims have accompanied this now long path with the example of listening, of asking for forgiveness, of consolation and of the personal involvement of popes. 

In many countries the results of the commitment for renewal are encouraging; cases of abuse have become very rare and so the majority of cases we are dealing with today and which continue to come to light belong to a relatively distant past, from several decades (ago). In other countries, usually for reasons of cultural situations that are very different and still characterized by silence, there is still a lot to do and there is not lack of resistance and difficulty, but the way forward has become clearer. 

The formation of the Commission for the Protection of Minors announced by Pope Francis in December 2013, composed of members of every continent, indicates the maturity of the Catholic Church’s path. After having established and internally developed a decisive response to the problems of the sexual abuse of minors (on the part of priests or other Church workers), the problem arises systematically of not only how to respond well to the problem in every part of the Church, but also of how to more broadly help the societies in which the Church lives to confront the problems of abuse and violations committed against minors, given that – as everyone should know, even if there is often still a considerable reluctance to admit it – in every part of the world the vast majority of abuse cases don’t come from ecclesial contexts, but outside of them (in Asia one can speak of dozens of millions of abused children, certainly not in Catholic contexts).

Therefore, the Church, wounded and humiliated by the plague of abuse, intends to act not only for her own recovery, but also to make available her strong experience in this field, to enrich her educative and pastoral service to society as a whole, which generally still has a long way to go to realize the seriousness of the problems and to address them. 

In this perspective the events in Rome the past few days can in the end be read in a positive light. We must give credit to Cardinal Pell for a dignified and consistent personal testimony (some 20 hours of dialogue with the Royal Commission!) which shows once more an objective and lucid picture of the mistakes made in many ecclesial environments (in this case Australia) in past decades. And this acquisition is not useless in the perspective of the common “purification of memory.”

We must also give credit to different member of the group of victims who came from Australia for having shown a willingness to establish a constructive dialogue with the same cardinal and with the representative of the Commission for the Protection of Minors Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, from the Pontifical Gregorian University – with which they deepened the prospects for an effective commitment for abuse prevention.

If therefore the appeals followed by Spotlight and the mobilization of victims and organizations for the deposition of Cardinal Pell contribute to supporting and intensifying the long march in the fight against child abuse in the universal Catholic Church and in the world today (where the dimension of these tragedies is boundless), they are welcome. 

Tags: Abuse of minors, Clerical sex abuse, Spotlight


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