The meeting “Child Protection in the Church” called by Pope Francis took place from February 21-24, 2019, with the participation of some 190 people in the New Synod Hall in Vatican City. Two liturgical celebrations took place in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace, duly prepared to host the penitential liturgy on the Saturday evening and the Mass on the Sunday morning.
Pope Francis was present for all of the general meetings, he gave a short introductory speech and handed out a list of 21 concrete points, suggested by the reflections of the participants. He presided at the two celebrations, delivering his important concluding speech at the end of Mass.
The keynote speeches and the papal address
The duration of the meeting meant that the rhythm of work was very intense. Three ample speeches were given on each of the three days, dedicated respectively to the three main themes: responsibility, accountability and transparency.
Each speech was followed by a short dialogue with the speaker. During the first two days there was also time for an hour spent in working groups in the morning and again in the afternoon, followed by reports by secretaries from each group to the main assembly. On the third day the working group was only held in the morning to allow time for the penitential rite in the afternoon.
The 11 groups were each shaped around a number of criteria: linguistic (e.g. English, Italian, French and Spanish), cultural variety and ecclesial function; there were around 15 people in each so as to allow for a fruitful exchange.
The speeches covered many ideas, as did exchanges in the working groups. Early publication of the Acts by the Vatican’s Publishing House will allow a careful analysis. For now we wish to mention some of the very important themes.
The speech by Archbishop Charles Scicluna on the day dedicated to responsibility clearly brought attention to the pillars and spirit of current canon law and the procedures to follow in cases of sexual abuse, stating clearly the proper relationship with civil authorities in terms of collaboration. The speaker observed that sometimes, for example in cases of digital pornography, civil authorities have more effective skills and tools to make enquiries than those possessed by ecclesiastical authorities.
He spoke about informing communities of the outcome of processes; about prevention, which includes choice and formation of candidates for priesthood, but also information and formation in ecclesial communities. He spoke about the wider participation of communities and laypeople in the selection and presentation of candidates for the episcopate, while during other interventions he outlined legal and procedural innovations, such as a greater role for victims in the canonical processes.
The speech by Cardinal Blase Cupich on the day dedicated to accountability developed one of the points at the center of much attention: the question of examining bad management by bishops and religious superiors of abuse cases. Negligence in listening to victims or in punishing the guilty and the tendency to hide the crimes requires a development of the laws and procedures for these cases.
This question is treated in Pope Francis’ apostolic letter given motu proprio As a Loving Mother, which sets out the task of the Roman dicasteries involved in view of the final decision by the pope. But Cardinal Cupich offered a schema for the prior treatment at the local level along lines to be adopted by the episcopal conferences: how and to whom the accusations should be brought and how to carry out the investigations. He spoke of a possible role for the metropolitan and the collaboration of experts, including lay experts.
The speech given by Cardinal Reinhard Marx on the day dedicated to transparency powerfully highlighted the need for proper administration in the government of the ecclesial community: attention to following procedures and norms, to guaranteeing that decisions and actions taken can be tracked, care for the documentation and the archives, which is a very serious role given the opportunity to destroy documents in order to hide crimes and scandals, and exchange of information between those responsible for investigating cases.
This is not a matter of turning the life of the Church into a bureaucracy, but of governing it with order and precision, for abuse and corruption more easily hide and become aligned where some are awaiting guidelines, codes of conduct and so lack clarity.
The cardinal underlined how it is opportune to redefine the aims and limits of the “pontifical secret” in today’s situation; to establish and present transparently to the public the procedural norms and rules of ecclesiastical processes; to let people know the data and statistics to understand the dimensions and nature of the problems; to offer transparency on the legal proceedings.
Those who followed the meeting, perhaps watching the speeches live, quickly understood that the three talks by women speakers had a significant impact. The pope himself observed this spontaneously, and many others present too.
So a step forward has been taken in understanding the contribution women can bring to the Church with their responsiveness, intelligence and great authority. It is confirmation that in this very field, where an appropriately healthy vision of sexuality needs to be recovered and spread, the contribution of wise, good, intelligent and welcoming women is absolutely necessary.
Professor Linda Ghisoni presented most effectively the communion dimension of the exercise of responsibility and accountability in the life of the Church, helping to understand the vital role of the participation of competent lay people – men and women – in the ecclesial structures at various levels. Prof. Ghisoni proposed that in national guidelines there be inserted a specific chapter establishing a procedure to ordinarily verify the completion of what bishops and superiors should do, not to be understood as a sign of distrust, but as an aid to maintaining a focus on the reasons for actions taken.
For this purpose, it would be good that in the territory of each episcopal conference an independent commission be instituted, which should be consulted to ensure coherency and uniformity in the action of the different dioceses.
Obviously, at a world-level meeting, cultural differences emerged and also varying degrees of recognition of the existence and gravity of the problem across the world. However, I doubt any priest or professor could have spoken to the many African bishops of abuse and sexual education with as much authority as a robust and competent African sister, the Nigerian Mother Superior, Veronica Openibo.
And then there was the Dean of the Vatican Press Corps, Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican mother who has made 150 international papal trips with four popes and who reported on the tragedy of the abuses of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel.
Alazraki spoke on the theme of transparency, and was very helpful in raising awareness of how Church leaders must live an honest relationship with journalists and public opinion, in truth and in responsibility. We need to be aware that those working in communications interpret the people’s understandable expectancy for information and explanation.
The faithful today do not forgive the lack of transparency; victims have the right to know what happened to those guilty of making them suffer and should not be seen a priori – as often happens in the Church – as enemies and people to avoid. They should be seen as potential collaborators of the Church in the battle for truth and the common good. The effort to hide and say nothing necessarily leads journalists to seek to uncover what is being hidden and the reasons they are hidden.
Transparent communication channels within the Church are also necessary and should reach the highest levels without being blocked by interests, or worse, corruption. Experience shows that in our time efforts to hide embarrassing episodes and scandals are a dangerous illusion, and instead courageously aiming for transparency and the truth, improving the professional approach to communication to the public is always the right way.
Alazraki’s speech was popular with the media, believing their needs and objections regarding the way the Church communicates were now better understood. It also appreciated the efforts to communicate the entire meeting, allowing live streaming of all the speeches, the morning prayers and liturgical celebrations, as well as the press conferences and daily briefings where organizers and speakers were present.
In his final address, the pope placed the theme of the meeting in the wider and dramatic context of the many forms of violence against children in the world, citing striking data from various reports by international institutions. But he went on to say: “We need to be clear: while gravely affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church. The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
Pope Francis challenged his listeners to consider the problem of abuse within the Church as a place of the battle between good and bad, the Spirit and the Evil One: “No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children. We need to recognize with humility and courage that we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable, for they are an image of Jesus.” And again: “In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”
In our secularized world always ready to accuse the Church of fleeing from “concrete” problems, this was a speech that not everybody understood and welcomed, but most of the participants at the meeting did. Effectively, only in this way can we undertake the journey of conversion and purification in depth, sustained by a radical motivation of faith, which includes not only the necessary disciplinary and organizational measures, but also those or prayer and penitence.
The pope also emphasized: “It is difficult to grasp the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors without considering power, since it is always the result of an abuse of power, an exploitation of the inferiority and vulnerability of the abused, which makes possible the manipulation of their conscience and of their psychological and physical weakness.”
In the section of his speech dedicated to operative aspects, the pope indicated the priority to be given to protection of children before any other consideration; seriousness in looking at any case of crime, whoever has committed it; need for genuine purification, starting with the very pastors of the Church, their lives and holiness; the selection and formation of candidates for priesthood; and strengthening and reviewing guidelines by episcopal conferences.
The pope said that there is a need to reaffirm “the need for bishops to be united in the application of parameters that serve as rules and not simply indications. Rules, not indications.” He then returned to insist on the battle against cover ups and the promotion of prevention in all institutions and ecclesial activities; accompanying abused people with listening and patience that favor interior healing; attention to the digital world and the very serious risks it poses to the dignity of children and the consequences of the spread of pornography, with images of children and adults; and the need to battle against sexual tourism.
The pope concluded his talk by thanking the great majority of priests and consecrated people who are faithful to their mission, and he invited the Church not to lose its courage in times of trial. Finally, he made an appeal “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth!”
The mood of the meeting and the emotion of listening to victims
The mood of the meeting was intense, heartfelt and aware of the gravity and urgency of the matter, but not lacking in order and serenity. Several participants arrived worried, disoriented, fearful and somewhat skeptical, but they came to feel that they were welcome and assisted in an experience of spiritual communion, collegiality and solidarity with the pope and among the bishops present, with a will to help each other and to walk together – synodality – with laymen and women, and with religious men and women.
Participants came from all corners of the globe, from a wide range of cultures, backgrounds and circumstances, each with a different perspective on the problem of sexual abuse worth considering. But there were no tensions in the air. There was a great openness to listen and share. Everybody understood – or was disposed to better understand – that this is a very painful, often hidden crisis, which strongly challenges the credibility of the Christian community and the efficacy of its mission.
In some countries of the world, such as the United States, Germany, Ireland, Australia and Chile, the Church entered the crisis following these episodes and the way they have echoed both in public opinion and among Catholics. And as Pope Francis aptly said quoting St Paul, “if one member suffers, all suffer together,” willingly or unwillingly, by the very fact that they are members of the same body.
They all went home to their dioceses and communities after the meeting with a sense of gratitude for the experience, of trust and hope that the Church can rediscover its credibility and enthusiasm for its mission.
The echo of many impressions makes us think that most people returned home convinced that an important step forward had been taken in the ecclesial journey, in the direction hoped for by Pope Francis, both personally, and also as a body of pastors of the universal Church.
Everybody was able to grow in the awareness of the nature and gravity of the problems of sexual abuse in the Church, of their own responsibilities in opposing it, of the way to do so, and of the ecclesial solidarity they can count on. So, in four days they were able to make progress beyond what was expected. Thus, the pope is right to push the sense of collegiality and synodality, and to make us “walk together.”
Naturally, you cannot properly approach the issue of sexual abuse without listening to and letting yourself be engaged by the experience of those who have suffered. The main cause of the worsening of the problem and the serious scandal that followed was, in fact, the failure to listen to these voices.
So, given the brevity of the meeting and the reduced possibility of dedicating ample time to the listening to victims, participants were asked to listen to victims in their own countries as a necessary preparation before coming to the meeting.
This was also an act of awareness and recognition of abuse in their own countries. And during the meeting too, there had to be moments to listen to victims. So at the beginning we watched and listened to recordings of victims from four continents who told their experiences, and in the evening prayer on each of the three days we heard the testimony of victims who were present.
In no way should this be considered as a formal or merely symbolic act. All the participants were deeply moved. All understood once and for all that the starting point is genuine listening to victims. Their suffering is due not only to abuse suffered, but also to the fact that they have not been heard and the fact that the problem was covered up and the abusers protected.
How upsetting this experience of listening to the victims was can be seen in the fact that one evening, after a victim had given a personal testimony, the assembly departed remaining in silence, just like after a Good Friday liturgy, without comments or greetings, starting with the pope. All the participants were deeply moved and passed by to shake the hand of the victim, to thank her for opening her heart with such sincerity, once again retracing the steps of her journey of suffering.
What was achieved?
Certainly, the meeting was a big step forward in some fundamental directions for all the participants, and so for the ecclesial community they represent. This was seen in the working groups and the experience of those who saw notable progress in the awareness shown by members.
The main, overall results, are summarized here. However, we are aware that there were many more detailed suggestions that emerged in the groups.
– A decisive step forward was taken in overcoming the “culture of silence.” Residual silences must be broken, and courage is needed to bring issues to light and face them, to overcome misunderstandings of a distorted vision of authority and solidarity in the institution of the Church, which Pope Francis with much insistence has qualified as “clericalism.”
– The belief has become consolidated and spread that listening to victims of abuse is a necessary starting point for understanding the gravity of the problem and its nature. The depth of the suffering in victims is caused not only by the fact of the abuse itself, but also in great part by the experience of not being listened to and not being believed. This causes great resentment and the hardening of critical stances, to which the response needed is that of a renewed willingness to listen. Listening must be part of the ministry of the bishop. It is asked that in the dioceses there be specific people and places, known and available, to which victims and their families can turn.
– Awareness has grown that all bishops and religious superiors have to know their duty and the tasks that belong to them in abuse cases, both for what they have to do, and concerning what they should not do. For this purpose two things are expected. The first is that together with updated guidelines prepared by the episcopal conferences, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should prepare a Vademecum that is easily accessible and user friendly, which describes precisely what every bishop has to know and do for abuse cases. The second is that there be further clarification and understanding of how to apply the motu proprio As a Loving Mother concerning the accountability of bishops and superiors for negligence and poor management of the cases.
– It became clear how important it is to have qualified members of lay and ecclesial communities participate and collaborate in order to tackle competently and co-responsibly the different dimensions of the problems (listening, evaluation of reports, accompaniment of victims and offenders, prevention in different areas – family, pastoral, community, educational – formation of personnel, presence in ecclesiastical tribunals, etc.). The specific importance of the presence of women was widely recognized.
– The need for good selection and formation of clergy, in the integrality of the person, including from the human and affective perspectives. A proper understanding of the relations and authorities in the Church, against a misunderstood clericalism, and insistence on service rather than power or privilege, has to be proposed from the very outset of seminary formation. Ongoing formation and the accompaniment of the clergy have to be promoted, as also the initial and ongoing formation of bishops for their ministry and their responsibilities.
– The need for solidarity between bishops and dioceses was accepted. Evidently, there are regions where experience is deeper and wider, others where skills and resources, financial and personnel, are limited. Exchange and assistance are necessary. This is a field where “collegiality” in the universal Church has to translate into concrete support, for the problem is universal and requires a global commitment to face it.
– The need was recognized for adopting transparency in every aspect of ecclesial life, internally and externally, both in the field of sexual abuse and in that of financial affairs. If there is a definitive sentence, it is right that it be known; if there is a superior who is dismissed for negligence or weakness or failure, generally it is right that the reasons be made public. It is good to reconsider the theme of the “secret,” as well as the motivations that instead require an appropriate level of privacy for the safeguarding of people and for the common good.
– In the field of communications, we should not forget the excellent and vast collection of documents prepared by the Dicastery for Communications and made accessible to journalists. Its informative richness was not available before and it is now useful for all. Also, we should recall the large amount of material contained in the responses to the questionnaires sent by the participants before the meeting. These reflections are a source of important information especially from the point of view of a better understanding of cultural diversity, which should now be studied by competent people.
And now what?
From all this it is clear that the passage from awareness to action happens first of all in the local Church to where the participants returned. There now they have begun to share these outcomes with their episcopal brothers and sister, and seek appropriate ways to respond to the problems.
However, the Church as a universal body lives through its relations with the center, which is constituted by the pope and his collaborators in Rome. We wish to enumerate, then, a set of lines along which the different Vatican bodies can contribute effectively within their own spheres of competence.
On March 26, the pope signed a new motu proprio – it had been announced at the end of the meeting – on the protection of children and vulnerable people in the Roman Curia and in the Vatican City State, accompanied by a new Law of the Vatican City State on the subject, and guidelines for the Vicariate for Pastoral Care of Vatican City. In this way rigorous and innovative norms have been promulgated for the entire personnel of the Curia, including diplomatic staff abroad, Vatican dependents and for the territory of the State. It is quite restricted in terms of geography and population, but it is a good example, starting with those who exercise their service for the universal Church.
– The preparation of a Vademecum (Handbook) for bishops by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the need for which was already known, is underway. It is hoped it will be completed soon. It is necessary that not only the participants at the meeting, but all the bishops give an account of their duties, because the real responsibility for the government of a diocese is headed by each of them and the existence of guidelines by episcopal conferences is not sufficient.
– Likewise, clarifications and further enquiry are expected concerning the procedure for cases of negligence by bishops in treating cases of abuse, a question that has become more and more pressing in public opinion.
– In the coming revision of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law (“Sanctions in the Church”) various matters concerning abuse are touched. One of the 21 points proposed by the pope suggests the insertion of a specific title on protection of children. It is to be hoped that the revision will soon be completed.
– We note how various requests and proposals of a legal nature were made during the meeting, some of which could be easy to apply. For example, the raising of the minimum age in canon law for marriage to 16 years (this is an important measure for girls and was presented by the pope in his 21 points); the raising to 18 years of age for children as objects of pornographic material in the definition of “most serious” canonical crimes (of which the pope spoke during his final address); the role of victims in the canonical process; the change of rules around the “pontifical secret” regarding abuse cases.
– The majority of episcopal conferences have set out their own guidelines, but some must still complete their work (with the exception of those who are justified on account of the dramatic situations of their countries) and some of these guidelines can be updated in light of the experience and the proper demands of prevention. Moreover, the guidelines must not simply be formulated, they must be seen – as the pope said – as “rules and not just indications” and must put into place efficacious procedures to verify they are followed and fit for service.
– The Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life has long given Movements and other institutions recognized by the Holy See indications to formulate and present guidelines and sufficient codes of conduct. This is important, as the problem of abuse does not concern only the members of the clergy, but affects all ecclesial institutions and environments. Also, we know that the problem of the relationship between abuse of power, abuse of conscience and sexual abuse is ever present, that crimes have been committed, and may be committed again; and, as we are aware, even in Movements and institutions characterized by strongly charismatic leadership. However, only some of the institutions have responded to the request: it would be good to insist on this.
– The Dicasteries for Clergy and Catholic Education can and must take the initiative so that the indications concerning this problem that are already contained in the recent Ratio fundamentalis for priestly formation are effectively translated into practice. In this way, perhaps, specific instructions can be prepared on the duty of the bishops to inform themselves and inform each other when seminarians or priests move from one seminary or diocese to another. It was also proposed that before ordination (to priesthood and to the episcopate) the candidates sign up to a code of conduct that completely excludes abuse.
– In the courses for new bishops organized by the Congregations for Bishops and for the Evangelization of Peoples there are already sessions dedicated to the question of abuse. It would probably be possible – as was proposed during the meeting – to also organize more widespread courses on the theme for bishops who have the need or the use, and foresee specific appointments on the matter during the ad limina visits.
– Dioceses and regions where there is a lack and so a greater need for personnel trained in the protection of children have to work on finding and preparing such people. For this, ecclesial solidarity is essential. The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples every year gives study grants for formation at the Center for Child Protection at the Gregorian University for people sent from dioceses in Africa and Asia. This commitment can be further spread, noting how many religious women are already involved.
– To make up for any lack of competent resources there was the suggestion of creating task forces composed of experts who could help the episcopal conferences who ask for it in the formulation of their own guidelines. It is a timely, efficient approach to developing these documents.
In conclusion, there is no lack of concrete objectives to which to commit. Many others could be added to those already suggested. It is important that the multiplicity and variety of the initiatives and organisms involved do not lead to a dispersion or attenuation of the awareness of the needs. It would be very serious if the commitment invested and the intensity of the experience lived out in the days of the meeting were not to lead to an ecclesial step forward as wished for by the pope.
The painful news of these recent months – dismissal from the clerical state of former Cardinal Edgar McCarrick, the guilty verdict in the first instance and imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell in Australia, and the guilty verdict in the first instance of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin in France – have deeply shocked the ecclesial community.
There is no need to be discouraged and lose the sense of trust and hope nurtured by the recent meeting. Due evaluation of individual cases and the sufficiency of the punishments aside, we have by now understood that we have to pay a heavy price for the errors of the past.
This we accept as the price for conversion and deep purification. But this does not excuse us, rather it forces us to become more responsible and take up the tasks that belong to the Church and to each one of us in that all-out battle against every form of abuse and violence against children to which the pope rightly calls us along with all people of goodwill.
 The following participated: 116 presidents of Latin rite episcopal conferences or their representatives; 14 heads of Eastern Catholic Churches; some bishops who do not belong to episcopal conferences; heads of dicasteries and other members of the Roman Curia and the Council of Cardinals; 12 Male Superiors General and 10 Women Superiors General; Members of the organizing committee and speakers.
 All the texts of the speeches are available on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/resources/index_en.htm (The Protection of Minors in the Church). Besides the six authors mentioned in this article, speeches were also given by Cardinals Luis Antonio Tagle, Ruben Salazar Gomez and Oswald Gracias. More information is available on the official site of the Meeting: https://www.pbc2019.org/home
 The Digital Press Kit is full of useful information and is now available online in English, Spanish, Italian and French: https://www.pbc2019.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Digital_Press_Kit_-_ENGLISH_-_04.pdf
 The text of the three documents was published in the L’Osservatore Romano, March 30, 2019. The most important innovations in the Law are the following: crimes tied to child abuse will be pursued without the need for a complaint; prescription will now be 20 years from the 18th birthday of the victim; there is the duty to denounce incumbent on any public official (that is most of the people who work in the Vatican or for the Holy See); a service to assist victims is established; legal guarantees are granted to minors called to make declarations.
 It must be noted that guidelines are not binding for individual bishops. In order for them to become binding, the recognitio of the competent dicasteries is required. So far it has only been requested by the United States.