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I expected more than a ‘what now?’ resolution from the Church’s meeting on sex abuse

The recent meeting that called the presidents of bishops’ conferences to Rome to discuss the shocking scandals of abuse by priests in the Church, left Sarah-Leah Pimentel disappointed and deflated. Like many others, she is tired of hearing that now we are being ‘called to action’, a litany too often repeated at this meeting. Wasn’t that the purpose of this meeting: to act definitively and respond practically?

I am somewhat bewildered by the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church that took place in Rome on 21-24 February.

In his opening address, Pope Francis urged religious leaders to “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice”. He called for “concrete and effective measures” that go beyond “simple and predictable condemnations” seen in recent years. This led me to believe that we would see something new come out of this summit.

Cardinal Louis Tagle of Manilla acknowledged the “poor handling of these crimes” in the past and the need for “personal responsibility” and the courage to “draw near to the wounds of our people” who have been abused. This tone was repeatedly affirmed by the rest of the speakers chosen to address the meeting.

Colombian cardinal, Salazar Gómez spoke about the need to rid the Church of its “clerical mentality”, which draws on legalistic processes to the detriment of a “real sense of compassion and mercy” towards those who have suffered at the hands of abuser clergy.  

Sr Veronica Openibo SHCJ, in a moving address, attributed the widespread prevalence of a range of abuses to the fact that religious are often placed on a pedestal and treated “as though they are more special than everyone else.” She recommended instead, a “clear and balanced education” in the seminaries and joint committees, comprising both clergy and laity, to assist in the healing process of victims and prevent future abuses.

I read these addresses and the press briefings each day with great hope that the Church is finally working on the way forward. But I felt so disappointed on the final day of the meeting.

In his closing address, Pope Francis used the very tired excuse that we’ve been hearing in Church circles for years, that abusers exist in every segment of society. We know this.

But we expect our Church, the sacramental presence of Christ, to be better than the rest of society. There may be abusers in every part of society but they shouldn’t be the wolves in sheep’s clothing within the Church. This in no way excuses the Church. In fact, people rightly expect more from the Church.

I found it very poor taste for Pope Francis to lead his address with this; especially because he went on to say some very good things.

He did, however, assure us that the Church would face each case of abuse with “utmost seriousness.” The dismissal of a former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, from the order of the priesthood shows that he is prepared to follow through on this, regardless of rank.

The “abuse of power” by clergy, has directly contributed to the exploitation and manipulation of those abused, by preying on “their psychological and physical weakness”, admitted Francis.

He outlined eight practical measures to eliminate the scourge of abuse from the Church and society.

Among these, he called for a “change of mentality” to ensure the protection of minors and to bring the perpetrators to justice. He also called for a “renewed commitment to the holiness of pastors” by adopting “a balanced process of formation” and when discerning those suitable for the priesthood.

He asked for better accompaniment of the victims of abuse and alerted the need to equip local bishops’ conferences with the necessary tools to implement these at a local level.

This is exactly what I wanted to hear, a focus on restoring the victims’ lives; not on protecting the Church’s pastors from the scandals they have created for themselves.

This is why I also felt that the final press conference was a step backwards.

It highlighted four key initiatives that came out of the meeting: protocols to safeguard minors and vulnerable adults within Vatican City State, a rule-book for the bishops of the world regarding their responsibilities in dealing with this scourge, a task force to assist bishops in dealing with abuse.

The final ‘initiative’ was the one that stumped and bewildered me. “What now?” was heard in the press room. I suspect, like me, the world media was left shocked by this.

The various speakers at the meeting gave very clear suggestions about the way forward. Why were none of these were reflected in the initiatives? Surely, this was the point of the meeting; to answer the “what now” question?

In the southern African Church, we already have robust policies and rules for the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults. But in the one alleged case of abuse that I have personal knowledge of, the policies failed both victim and perpetrator. Both will, forever, be wounded by the lack of closure.

In my local archdiocese, Cape Town, the Child Protection Policy was put in place and all people working with children were required to submit police clearances and attend a course. However, even with all these best practices, my documentation got lost and I have as yet to attend the required course, despite a promise to make these available.

We need much more than policies if we’re really to deal with abuse in our Church.

We can no longer throw our hands up in despair and ask “what now?” The time has come to start implementing.

The formation of all laity or clergy in ministry must include the personal development of healthy, mature human relationships that take into account the whole person: physical, emotional and spiritual.

This is especially true for the formation of the religious who vow to live a celibate life. They should be given practical tools to enable them to channel their creative and sexual energies into life-giving ministry.

Formation needs to be ongoing and continue beyond the seminary. Priests should be expected to attend and be held accountable to an ongoing formation program like other professions. As religious communities get smaller, it is not uncommon for a priest to live completely alone and physically distant from his brother priests. This means that they are unable to build and participate in wholesome communities that provide space for prayerful growth and development —especially after the first passions of youthful and evangelical idealism pass.

We absolutely need the protocols and the rules. They are there to deal with abuse cases, which we pray, will become fewer; but they cannot exist in isolation, without the spiritual and communal elements described above.

I fear that all the right sounds were made at this meeting but these appear not to have resonated strongly enough with attendees. And this is what continues to stymy the urgent transformation the Church needs today.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.