Preparations in the Vatican are underway for a summit of the bishops to discuss the problem of clerical sexual abuse. The meeting, which will involve the leadership of bishops’ conferences from around the world, seems to follow Pope Francis’ methodology for addressing abuse by clerics.
This week, the meeting’s planning committee requested that presidents of bishops’ conferences meet personally with victims of abuse before the February Vatican summit.
A letter from the planning committee urges meeting participants “to reach out and visit with victim survivors of clergy sex abuse in your respective countries prior to the meeting in Rome, to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.”
Pope Francis has met several times with victims of clerical sexual abuse. A July 7, 2014 meeting with survivors was the first meeting ever of a pope with victims within the Vatican walls. The Pope also met with survivors in the US in 2015 and in Chile and Ireland in 2018.
After the Chilean abuse scandal broke in early 2018, the pope also met with Chilean survivors on Apr. 27, 2018 in Domus Sanctae Marthae, his residence.
Pope Francis also told Chilean Jesuits in February that “sometimes I meet with victims on Fridays, sometimes it is public and sometimes is not.”
Benedict XVI was the first pope to hold organized meetings with abuse survivors: he did in 2008 in the United States and Australia, in 2010 in the United Kingdom and Malta, in 2011 in Germany.
Benedict XVI not only began this particular papal ministry, he also blessed its institutionalization.
Benedict XVI was a supporter of a 2012 conference, “Toward Healing and Renewal,” organized by the Jesuit’s Pontifical Gregorian University with the Backing of the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
The conference gathered representatives of bishops’ conference, and 30 superiors of religious congregations.
Among the outcomes of that conference was the establishment in Rome of a Center for Child Protection. The conference emphasized the need for bishops to listen to victim’ stories as a first step in any response, and the need to consult with secular lay experts to better ensure objective judgments.
The expertise of the Center for Child Protection has since been transferred into the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
It is likely not by chance that among members of the planning committee for the February are Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of La Valletta and Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ.
Scicluna was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith promoter of justice (i.e. Vatican prosecutor) from 2002 to 2012. It was Scicluna who helped set up the new norms to counter the sex abuse scandal that broke in the .S in 2002, and to provide the Vatican’s general framework for addressing clerical sexual abuse.
Zollner was one of the sponsors of “Toward Healing and Renewal Conference,” and is the president of the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University. He has also been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since it was established in 2014.
Speaking with CNA in September, shortly after the February summit was announced, Scicluna noted that “protection of minors is something that has to be an ongoing process in the Church, and therefore it only begins with the good screening of future priests, as St. John Paul II asked for in 1992.”
The archbishop referred to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1992 post-synodal exhortation Pastores dabo vobis.
“It was St. John Paul II’s prophetic message,” he said, “as the document, speaking of the formation of future priests, valued the issue of human formation, of psychological screening and also of a clear evaluation of the candidate from the point of view of emotional authority and eligibility to be the shepherd of the flock.”
The document underscored that “in the seminary, that is, in the program of formation, celibacy should be presented clearly, without any ambiguities and in a positive fashion. The seminarian should have a sufficient degree of psychological and sexual maturity as well as an assiduous and authentic life of prayer, and he should put himself under the direction of a spiritual father.”
Scicluna said that, beyond the screening of future priests, there must also be “an empowerment to the community, to disclose abuse when it happens and also an empowerment of the community so that together we ascertain and we guarantee that the Church is a safe place for everybody, including minors.”
All of these issues will likely be part of the topics discussed in the February meeting.
It is noteworthy to remember that in May 2011, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith delivered a circular letter to bishops’ conferences around the world, asking them to prepare guidelines to counter abuse.
The letter also talked about the formation of the future priests and about the protection of the communities and cooperation with civil authorities. The letter read that “sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict but also a crime prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authorities within their responsibilities.”
Scicluna commented that these things “need to be implemented and constantly put in the local Church’s agenda.” In many places, observers say, the circular letter has not yet been transformed into norms or policies.
Following Scicluna’s rationale, the request to meet with survivors must be considered a necessary first step for the heads of bishops’ conferences, as they will be called to begin from their personal experience with victims to outline new guidelines, with the goal to design a global response.
The 2011 letter explains that “absent a comprehensive and communal response not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world.”
Will the pope, after the meeting, give more responsibility to the bishops’ conferences?
It is hard to say. Scicluna was recently appointed adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and this shows that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is still in charge of abuse cases, especially since the Vatican will not establish an ad hoc tribunal to judge negligent bishops, as Pope Francis once announced.
This tribunal was one of the concerns of Marie Collins, a survivor who was also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Pope Francis, however, rejected the option.
Coming back from his trip to Ireland Aug. 26, the pope said that Collins “emphasizes the idea of the [2016 Motu Proprio] As a Loving Mother, in which it was said that to judge bishops, it would be good to set up a special tribunal. It was subsequently seen neither to be feasible nor suitable for the different cultures of the bishops who should be judged”.
Pope Francis then added: “we are taking the recommendation of As a Loving Mother and setting up a jury for each bishop, but that is not the same thing. A particular bishop has to be judged and so the pope sets up a jury more capable of taking that case. It is something that works better, also because, for a group of bishops to leave their dioceses… for this reason it is not possible. So the tribunals and the juries change.”
The appointment of Scicluna to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirms Pope Francis’ approach. Scicluna, however, is working part-time, and he will remain in his post in Malta. This is part of Pope Francis’ vision: one should not leave the diocese for the Curia, but should serve the Curia from the diocese.