March 2019

Women address Vatican summit on abuse

The three women who addressed the recent Vatican Summit on the Protection of Minors called for greater transparency and accountability in the Church’s handling of child sexual abuse, and recognition of the sexual abuse of religious women. 

BY The Good Oil 

In February, Pope Francis took the unprecedented step of hosting a Vatican Summit on the Protection of Minors. Around 190 participants* attended the summit over the four days, and while the majority of participants and presenters were men, three women addressed the summit on the need for greater transparency.

The focus of the summit, consisting of lectures and workshops, was to address the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, particularly the responsibility, accountability and transparency of handling allegations and investigations into abuse.

Vatican correspondent for Noticieros Televisa (Mexico), Valentina Alazraki, spoke about the need for transparent communication, which she says is “indispensable to fight the sexual abuse of minors by men of the Church”.

As a journalist, Valentina has spent almost 45 years covering the last five pontificates and over 150 journeys made by the last three popes.

“In these four decades I have really seen it all. 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,” Valentina said in her address.

“Communicating is a fundamental duty because, if you fail to do so you automatically become complicit with the abusers. By not providing the information that could prevent these people from committing further abuse, you are not giving the children, young people and their families the tools to defend themselves against new crimes.

“The faithful do not forgive the lack of transparency, because it is a new assault on the victims. Those who fail to inform encourage a climate of suspicion and incite anger and hatred against the institution.”

Valentina told the gathering the Church would be better to get on the front foot and report abuse before the media uncovers it.

“I think it would be healthier, more positive and more helpful if the Church were the first to provide information, in a proactive and not reactive way, as normally happens.”

“In the age we live in, it is very difficult to hide a secret. With the prominence of social networks, the ease of posting photos, audio and video, and the rapid social and cultural changes, the Church has only one path: to concentrate on awareness and transparency, which go hand in hand.”

Valentina seized the opportunity to highlight another area of abuse in the Church – that of religious women being abused by bishops and clergy – and called on Church leaders to take a proactive approach.

“It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.”

She believes there is still resistance to both recognising the problem of abuse exists and the imperative to address it with all the instruments possible.

Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo SHCJ also called on the Church to have greater transparency on the issue of abuse and said a strategic way forward was needed to overcome the crisis.

In her address, Veronica, who is the Superior General of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, said that the Church needs to have “courageous conversations” and not be deterred from transparency because some of the accused perpetrators are old, or no longer living, or based on beliefs of forgiveness and mercy.

“The excuse that respect be given to some priests by virtue of their advanced years and hierarchical position is unacceptable.”

“It is true, as a Church, that we believe in repentance of the sinner, in conversion of hearts and the grace of transformation, ‘Go and from now on do not sin any more,’ says Jesus (John 8:1-11). This can create a strong dilemma for some, especially when we know that abusers have often been victims themselves. Do we need to probe deeply what we mean by justice with compassion?”

She called on the Church to be more strategic in handling the issue of child sexual abuse by learning from the best examples of practice in dioceses across the world, establishing joint commissions in each diocese with lay and religious representation, by supporting the healing of survivors spiritually and psychologically through the provision of better training and services, by finding concrete ways to address prostitution and child trafficking, promiscuity and personal infidelity and the sexual culture of patriarchy, and to ensure a balanced education on sexuality for the formation of priests and religious in seminaries and formation houses.

“I hope and pray that at the end of this conference we will choose deliberately to break any culture of silence and secrecy among us, to allow more light into our Church. Let us acknowledge our vulnerability; be pro-active not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the Church and society.”

Undersecretary for the Laity of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, Professor of Canon Law, Dr Linda Ghisoni, said the Church must not only acknowledge the abuses in the Church, but also be accountable.

“Not infrequently, I feel the preoccupation in the Church for the attention that is dedicated to the issue of sexual abuse of minors. A priest, a few days ago, exclaimed ‘Still? We continue talking about abuse! The Church’s attention to this theme is exaggerated’. Even a practicing lady told me candidly, ‘It is better not to talk about these matters, otherwise there will be distrust of the Church. Talking about it obscures all the good done in the parishes’, Ghisoni noted in her address

“To these people – and even before to myself – I say that becoming aware of the phenomenon and understand one’s responsibility is not a fixation. It is not an accessory inquisitorial action to satisfy mere social needs, but an exigency stemming from the same nature of the Church as a mystery of communion founded in the Trinity. As People of God on their journey, that does not avoid, but faces, with renewed communitarian awareness, even the challenges related to the abuses occurring inside to the detriment of the young undermining and breaking this communion.”

Linda offered a number of practical ways for the Church to make progress including:

  • The study of practices that have already produced results, with the inclusion of competent lay people.
  • In the national guidelines for “a specific chapter is to be inserted that determines reasons and procedures of accountability”.
  • That each episcopal conference establishes independent consultative commissions to advise the bishops and religious superiors, and to include lay representation.
  • To consider a central office – “not of accountability that is instead to be evaluated in the local area” but “to promote the formation of these organisms properly with ecclesial identity”.
  • To revise the current legislation on pontifical secrecy “in a way that it protects the values it intends to protect” to “allow the development of a climate of greater transparency and trust”.
  • To review all forms of communication for an appropriate balance between transparency and confidentiality, because “an unjustified confidentiality, as well as an uncontrolled disclosure, risk generating bad communication and not to render a service to the truth”.

At the conclusion of the summit, Pope Francis issued eight priorities for the Church going forward saying “the best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims, to the People of Holy Mother Church and to the entire world, are the commitment to personal and collective conversion, the humility of learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable”.

*Of the Vatican Summit participants there were:

  • 3 women who addressed the summit
  • 10 religious sisters
  • 14 leaders of Oriental Catholic Churches
  • 14 members of the Vatican Curia
  • 15 additional bishops and cardinals
  • 22 superiors of men and women religious
  • 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences

The Good Oil

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