Preparations are underway for a meeting of presidents of episcopal conferences on the subject of safeguarding children. Convoked by the pope, it will take place February 21-24, 2019.
Safeguarding, the fourth in our Perspectives series, shows how much has been done to confront the problem during the last two pontificates, with the renewal of canonical norms, the formulation of guidelines by episcopal conferences, the development of formation projects and other initiatives, and also some significant recent letters by Pope Francis. It also enumerates a series of key issues the meeting will have to confront.
“The greatest desolation that the Church is suffering.” This is how Pope Francis defined the sexual abuse scandal when he met privately with Jesuits in Peru in January 2018. He went on to state that “abuse is always the fruit of a mentality tied to power; it has to be healed in its malicious roots.” In Chile, he invited priests and religious “not to dwell in disheartenment” but to “ask God to grant us the clear-sightedness to call reality by its name.” This volume of our Perspectives series wants to show the commitment of La Civiltà Cattolica to addressing abuse. We do so by choosing nine articles written over the last years that look at the topic from different perspectives and examine different aspects of the problem.
Awareness has grown with time. We begin with an editorial that appeared in 2002, that is, 17 years ago. Today, we would write it differently. Even the articles dating from 2010 to 2012 respond to a different understanding from what we have now. When I recently told these authors of my intention to prepare a special edition on abuse for our Italian Accènti series, they shared with me that today they would be even more careful in using the word “pedophile” as they know that, in the strict sense, it concerns only abuse on prepubescent children. It is only a small but very dramatic part of the much wider problem of sexual abuse of minors. Words are sometimes used without necessary attention, but our journal wants to witness to a commitment and also a growth in awareness by the Church.
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What did the 2002 editorial say? Above all it described the nature of pedophilia and the people who carry out these acts. It speaks of the motivations behind the wall of silence that is created around pedophile acts and how the silence can be overcome. Trying to quantify the extent of the phenomenon, the editorial looked at sexual tourism and the spread of pedophilia via the internet and, in those times, the use of videocassettes. It gave space to the physical and psychological trauma that pedophile actions inflict on children. Finally, it stated the grave duty of all society to combat pedophilia rigorously and efficaciously, referring even to cases involving priests and religious.
In this special issue we also present some aspects of the topic in articles written by Hans Zollner and Giovanni Cucci. Both teach psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Fr. Zollner is also the director of the university’s “Centre for Child Protection,” which focuses on prevention. He has been a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors since its creation in 2014. Within that body he coordinates a working group on education and formation of Church personnel. Fr. Cucci, besides being a writer at La Civiltà Cattolica, is the reference person for the Euro-Mediterranean Province of the Jesuits for cases of abuse.
The first aspect they looked at in 2010 was the phenomenon of sexual abuse perpetrated on minors by members of the clergy of the Catholic Church, particularly in Ireland and Germany. The exposure of these cases was followed by an important pastoral letter from Benedict XVI. The article treats the theme from a psycho-social perspective, based on the scientific knowledge and understanding of the phenomenon that was then available. It is important that the Church be aware just how serious the events that occurred were, and seek not only to punish those who committed these crimes, but also ask itself how to form healthy priests.
Then they offered a contribution that looks at some significant elements that characterized the particular context of the debates around the topic at that time: The strange silence about the problem among educators, researchers, psychologists, as well as the presence of a “culture” around pedophilia. There is also a complaint about the general failure by society as a whole to perceive the gravity of the phenomenon.
Subsequently, there is a focus on the protection of children in the Catholic Church with an attention to the different contexts around the world. The starting point comes in some questions from Pope Francis in a preface he wrote for a book whose author is a victim of sexual abuse: “How can a priest, in the service of Christ and his Church, come to cause such evil? How can one who has consecrated his life to leading the little ones to God, end up instead devouring them in what I have called ‘a diabolical sacrifice’ that destroys both the victims and the life of the Church?”
The final aspect examined is tied to the fact that, besides the deep wounds inflicted on the body and psyche of the victims of sexual abuse, there is also a spiritual trauma for these people. Abuse that is carried out by priests or religious who “represent God” obscures the very image of God in the victim. This implication is more or less possible in the same form for all religious confessions, but in the Catholic Church it has taken on particular connotations. In this sense, what can be particularly traumatic is the attempt to silence the facts, or to be a Church unwilling to listen to victims. For many, what is compromised or even interrupted is the possibility of trusting or believing in God.
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A second part of the volume carries two recent articles that demonstrate the supreme importance the current pontiff has chosen to give to this issue, which is a scourge on the entire holy people of God. We offer an article by Fr. Diego Fares, who has a particular affinity with the Holy Father’s pastoral and spiritual vision. He looks closely at the explosive situation in Chile and how the Holy Father chose to walk with the Church in a synodal and pastoral way, being sufficiently courageous to admit his errors and beg forgiveness, and trusting in the mercy of God to set out on a future path. That approach is purposefully open-ended.
Next we provide Fr. Federico Lombardi’s overview of the entire situation in preparation for the February meeting convoked by Pope Francis, including a presentation of the legal instruments put in place by recent popes. He looks at the lessons of earlier failures – including the cases of Marcial Maciel, Fernando Karadima and Theodore McCarrick – and then enumerates some issues that require further consideration, including responsibility, the need for the entire Church to be engaged on the issue, to be on the side of truth, justice and the small and weak. In this context, we can draw attention to the letters of Francis to the people of God (August 20, 2018), to the pilgrim people of God in Chile (May 31, 2018) and most recently to the Bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (January 1, 2019).
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A third part of the volume gives an account of two important symposia that took place at the Gregorian University in 2012 and 2017. The first, titled “Toward Healing and Renewal,” aimed to spread awareness about what the Church is doing to face up to the scandals of the past and those of today, and to set out appropriate strategies of prevention. The symposium was considered a turning point in the understanding of the topic in the Catholic Church as it brought together representatives of episcopal conferences from the entire world and many superiors general. It raised awareness of the issue to a new level. Nine keynote lectures were given by psychiatrists and experts in priestly formation.
The second was dedicated to “The Dignity of Minors in the Digital World,” which is another important aspect of the continually spreading problem of sexual abuse of children and adolescents. Currently there are 4.2 billion internet users, almost a quarter of them minors. The Internet offers enormous opportunities, but it brings great risks for the integrity and dignity of the person, especially for children, who do not have the resources to defend themselves. Thus young people are threatened by new forms of abuse, which are dangerous for their mental, emotional and spiritual development. We ask, then, how to prevent such damage.
At the end of the congress, the participants drew up the “Declaration of Rome,” a text of 13 points that governments, internet businesses, international institutions, the academic world and religions are called to work on decisively and collaboratively for the sake of the protection of minors on the internet.
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The fight against sexual abuse will last for a long time. There is a need, then, to say goodbye to the illusion that the simple introduction of rules and guidelines is the solution. It requires a radical conversion and a decisive attitude to bring justice to the victims. Certainly, nobody is able to defeat evil definitively, not even abuse of minors – that would be a fatal presumption – but much can be done to reduce the risk of it occurring and to improve prevention and safeguarding.
We offer this volume to readers who wish to better understand the phenomenon of sexual abuse and its psychological and spiritual aspects. Ours is a small contribution, but it shows the commitment of La Civiltà Cattolica in an area that demands the presence of the Church and society.
Antonio Spadaro, SJ
Director of La Civiltà Cattolica