H.Em. Cardinal Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap
Our Blessed Savior often employs strong images in the Gospel to command our attention and underscore the seriousness of His message. He tells us to pluck out the eye that causes us to sin, to cut off the hand that is an occasion of sin. In another place Jesus says that if someone scandalizes a child it would be better if that individual have a millstone placed around his neck and be cast into the sea.
Obviously, Jesus does not want us to employ such cruel punishment, but He does want to get our attention and impress on us how much evil is done when we scandalize a child.
The worst aspect of the clergy sex abuse scandal is the damage, both spiritual and psychological, that is done not only to the children and adolescents who are sexually exploited, but also to their families, friends and acquaintances, as well as the parish community. Oftentimes the children abused were vulnerable because of some crisis in their family or because they were children of the most active parishioners and thus very much present to and involved in parish activities. In both instances the abuse was a reprehensible act of betrayal.
I was baptized by my uncle, a parish priest. I started serving Mass when I was six years old and went to the seminary at 13. All my teachers and mentors were priests and religious. They were good and holy people who only gave me good example and nurtured my faith. But I ask myself, if I had been a victim of a pedophile priest, would I be here today? Would I still be a Catholic? Would I have committed suicide like so many?
The fact that many priests have abused children is scandalous enough. But in the United States many thousands of Catholics have also left the Church for another reason, scandalized not so much by the sickness and human frailty of priests, but by the mistakes and incompetence of Bishops and Religious Superiors who failed to protect children from these predators.
In part, we can say that twenty or more years ago such inaction was due to the fact no one knew how much damage was being done to children. But to many of the faithful, it seemed like the Church’s reputation or financial patrimony was more important than the lives of innocent children.
Today, after so many years of pain and sorrow, we know that there is no justification for failing to act swiftly and decisively when confronted with instances of clergy sexual abuse. Also, contemporary experience makes evident to us that without clearly defined protocols and policies, Bishops and Religious Superiors improvise responses to occasions of clergy sexual abuse that no matter how well intended, too often prove to be inadequate and the cause of great harm to the victims, priests and the entire community.
This is not a Catholic problem or even a clerical problem. It is a human problem. However, when abuse is perpetrated by a priest, the damage is even more profound. In today’s world of instantaneous communications, our Catholic people throughout the world are becoming more aware of the problem of sexual abuse in the Church and are demanding that we, who are their pastors, take all necessary steps to safeguard the children entrusted to our care.
Pope Francis, listening to the advice of the Council of Cardinals, established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The purpose of the Commission is not to deal with individual cases of sexual abuse or specific situations that might arise. Our task is to advise the Holy Father, to recommend and promote best practices and procedures, to promote education and prevention in the Holy See and the Episcopal Conferences throughout the world. It would be perilous for us, as leaders in the Church, to consider that the scandal of clergy sexual abuse is for the most part a matter of history and not a pressing concern here and now. Vigilance, acknowledgment of responsibility and adherence to strict protocols for the protection of children are demanded of us if we seek to regain the trust and confidence of the people of God and be able to effectively exercise leadership going forward.
We should also be clear that the purpose of the Commission is not solely to address clerical sexual abuse. Although it is a sad and tragic fact that the problem of priests abusing children is still with us, our response to the sexual abuse of minors must also embrace the truth that the number of children throughout the world who are suffering some form sexual abuse is beyond imagining. The Commission is also a response to the mission entrusted to the Church to do all that it is possible to protect all of God’s children.
Today I would like to take a moment to acquaint the Cardinals with ongoing development of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Last week the full membership of seventeen individuals from throughout the world gathered here in Rome for the plenary meeting. Much time was given to making recommendations for membership, in order to allow for careful consultation with Bishops’ Conferences and Nuncios.
Last July, the original nine members of the Commission were presented to the Holy Father and then participated in the Holy Father’s pastoral meeting with the clergy sexual abuse victims from Ireland, England and Germany. I had suggested these countries be represented at the Holy Father’s meeting because the Church in each of those places has strong policies and services for victims. Many of us felt that it would be urgent to have a victim from Ireland. The individuals sent were selected by their bishops. The Holy Father greeted the individuals the night before the meeting, as they gathered for dinner. The next day the victims attended the Holy Father’s Mass at the Domus Sancta Martha and then met Pope Francis. The Holy Father dedicated the entire morning to the meetings. Fr. Hans Zollner and myself served as translators.
Everyone is convinced that the meetings accomplished much toward reassuring people of the Holy Father’s commitment to address the errors of the past and to continue Pope Benedict’s and Pope Saint John Paul’s initiatives to remove abusive priests from ministry.
In addition to facilitating the Holy Father’s meeting with the victims, the Commission is already addressing various aspects of child protection, best practices, education and prevention, as follows:
One of our first tasks is to offer assistance to Episcopal Conferences around the world with the guidelines for the protection of children which they are already developing and implementing.
In 2011 The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith requested that the Bishops’ Conferences present their policies for the protection of children. Unfortunately some countries have not yet responded, and others have presented norms that seem too vague or not effective.
We have been in conversations with Cardinal MŁeller about these matters and look forward to making recommendations to the various Episcopal Conferences. I have already sent a letter to all the Bishops Conferences requesting that each Conference name an individual who could be a contact person in their country, thus facilitating communication concerning child protection policies with all the Conferences.
Having consulted with the Commission, the Holy Father has sent a letter to the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences. The letter points out to Bishops that the protection of children and young people is of paramount importance for the Church. As Pope Francis stated in the letter: “Families need to know that the Church is making every effort to protect their children. They should also know that they have every right to turn to the Church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home. Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse minors.”
This priority cannot be secondary to any other interest, whether a desire to protect a priest, avoid scandal or safeguard the Church’s assets. Pastoral concern for the protection of children is a requirement for a Bishop to fulfill his role as shepherd of Christ’s flock. The Holy Father desires that “pastors and those in charge of religious communities should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones; such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness.”
In the letter, the Holy Father speaks of the Commission’s work to support Bishops’ Conferences to develop the best policies possible and to implement them consistently and courageously. In many parts of the world, child protection is a new concept, especially in mission lands where the Church has limited resources. The letter from the Holy Father is an important call to a commitment to work for the protection of children.
Through our contact with best practices and well credentialed professionals throughout the world, the Commission stands ready to critique the proposals that are submitted and to make suggestions that would strengthen the policies and develop mechanisms to monitor compliance.
II. Education Programs:
It is fairly well known that there are many clergy and lay persons in the universal Church who still believe that the sex abuse crisis is an American phenomenon and who do not agree with policies of transparency and zero tolerance. I strongly believe the Commission members, drawn from the Church throughout the world, can make a valuable contribution in raising consciousness concerning the seriousness of the clergy sexual abuse problem. Their experiences and those of their colleagues in their home countries make clear that the universal Church must be united in the commitment that our parishes, schools and institutions will be a safe place for children.
Regarding specific projects, the Commission would like to hold seminars on Child Protection policies for the leadership of the Curia to help people understand how serious this topic is for the life of the Church. We also want to point out the dire consequences that all too often are the result of improvising responses to occurrences of clergy sexual abuse. Our failure to adhere to established policies and procedures causes great suffering to victims and their families and greatly damages the reputation of Catholic priests, causing people to lose trust in the Church and even question their faith.
We would also like to be able to contribute to the “Montessori for Bishops”, the instructional sessions for the most recent cohort of Bishops that are organized by the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. These sessions could provide an important opportunity for helping new Bishops to understand the paramount importance of following proper child protection policies and procedures.
The Commission also proposes to develop recommendations of policies to assist seminaries throughout the world with the important work of assessing and screening candidates and developing human formation programs for seminarians. It is our hope that established best practices could be incorporated into the new Ratio of seminary formation. Proper screening and adequate human formation are crucial for the formation of priests.
III. Various Initiatives:
The Commission hopes to work with Dr. Domenico Giani to develop child protection policies and reporting practices for the Vatican City State. The Commission feels strongly that the Vatican needs to be a leader and a model for the rest of the Church with regard to these matters.
We also hope to develop norms to ensure accountability of Church authorities, by offering a definition of “failing to protect minors” and suggesting policies and sanctions for the failure to protect. If we do not take the initiative regarding these matters of failure to protect when problems arise, as they sadly but surely will, then we effectively leave it to the media to dictate the appropriate response. Without question the Church and the people of God are far better served when we use the Gospel values and ideals to reach a timely and transparent solution.
The Commission wishes to provide guidelines and best practices for the care and spiritual needs of victims and their families. It is a sign of hope, and indeed a sign of the Lord’s abiding presence, that many victims wish to reestablish a connection with the Church and seek her spiritual support.
The Commission would also like to design and propose a day of prayer for the universal Church, comparable to the day of fasting observed for Syria. In the Archdiocese of Boston we have had prayer services of reparation in the parishes most affected by clergy sexual abuse. These did help bring some healing to those communities. Because the sexual abuse of minors has caused such devastation both within and outside the Church, we believe that a day of prayer in the Church throughout the world would be a positive contribution and a sign of hope to victims and their families.
Likewise, we hope to address best practices for the outreach and care of the perpetrators of abuse, their families and their colleagues. One of the greatest challenges the Church faces is monitoring and caring for priests who are observing a life of prayer and penance. There is also need to develop plans for the care of priests who are unjustly accused and to establish best practices for restoring their reputations and returning them to ministry, while respecting their wishes following such a difficult experience.
In many civil jurisdictions the statute of limitations prevent the civil authorities from taking any action, even a preliminary investigation, when a past occurrence of clergy sexual abuse is reported. This legal technicality remains in place even today in many countries and states. In such circumstances it is not acceptable for Church authorities to maintain that if civil officials have been informed but can take no action then the Church has no obligation to respond. If the state is unable to act, the Church must investigate and resolve the report of abuse through her own policies and procedures, removing perpetrators and caring for victims when abuse has occurred.
Extensive educational programs will be necessary to assure a safe environment for our children and vulnerable adults. We have begun to reach out to international Catholic funding organizations, to encourage them to make child protection policies a requirement for all projects that they support. We are also asking them to assist with funding that will help to defray the costs of establishing and training for child protection programs in the universal Church.
I hope that these examples have given you some insight into the work of our Commission. I would like to conclude by emphasizing that, for the foreseeable future, the greatest challenges for the Church with regard to the issues of clergy sexual abuse are to ensure transparency, accountability, and zero tolerance. Unless these are achieved, unless there is confidence in our commitment to these principles, the Church will not be able to restore the trust of Catholics whose faith has been shaken. Sadly, we know that millions of the faithful no longer attend Mass in the United States and Western Europe, and that many of the Church’s agencies of works of mercy, educational institutions and parishes have been closed as a result of the crisis. The people of God and the wider society must see that we are serious about preventing the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and actively responding to any and all occurrences of abuse if we are to prevent further loss of faith and diminishment of our ministries.
There abuse crisis has also led to another loss, with serious implications for the mission of the Church. The prophetic voice of the Church defending human rights, addressing the plight of immigrants and the upholding the Gospel of Life has been seriously diminished. This has been caused, in large part, by the perception of a lack of accountability on the part of our leadership, causing many people to lose their trust in us and in the Church. We cannot fail to do all that is possible to restore our credibility; we cannot fail to restore the Church’s voice in support of the oppressed and in defense of life.
Despite the many challenges we face, the Church today has the opportunity to lead the world in creating a safe environment for children and vulnerable adults. In the United States many Christian churches and Jewish congregations have shown an interest in learning from the Church’s experience and have shown interest in adopting our best practices and working together to make society safer for all children.
The abuse of children takes hold and spreads in an atmosphere of secrecy and darkness. The Church must lead the way in addressing this most serious human problem by humbly making the commitment to accountability, transparency and zero tolerance, the binding commitment that no member of the clergy who has abused a child will be allowed to continue in ministry.
Out of the shame and the pain of our recent history, God can bring something good, a Church and a society that establishes the protection of children as among the highest priorities. To move forward from the clergy sexual abuse crisis, to regain the trust of the people we serve and allow for the possibility of the return of those who have left us, we must be known as always and everywhere committed to the safety of the children entrusted to our pastoral care. Only this can bring healing to our Church and restore confidence in our pastoral leadership.
To conclude with our Holy Father’s beautiful words: “May the Lord Jesus instill in each of us, as ministers of the Church, the same love and affection for the little ones which characterized his own presence among us, and which in turn enjoins on us a particular responsibility for the welfare of children and vulnerable adults. May Mary Most Holy, Mother of tenderness and mercy, help us to carry out, generously and thoroughly, our duty to humbly acknowledge and repair past injustices and to remain ever faithful in the work of protecting those closest to the heart of Jesus.”
Sean Cardinal O'Malley, OFM Cap.