Rome abuse conference
Priests pray during a Feb. 7 penitential vigil at St. Ignatius Church in Rome to show contrition for clerical sexual abuse. The service was led by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops. CNS photo

A decade after sex abuse allegations against Catholic clergy dominated U.S. news headlines, an international symposium in Rome gathered to review the best and worst practices in responding to the scandal, which has since spread to other parts of the world. The early February conference, “Towards Healing and Renewal,” was organized by the Jesuit’s Pontifical Gregorian University with the backing of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and gathered representatives of bishops’ conferences from around the world and 30 superiors of religious congregations. 

Many of the interventions in the closed-door meeting spoke of the need for bishops to compassionately listen to the victims’ stories as the priority step in any response. Others highlighted their moral and legal imperative to consult with civil society experts to better ensure objective judgments. The symposium aimed to assist bishops and religious superiors to expedite and improve their own guidelines or norms by making them aware of global, cross-cultural resources on this issue. 

It was also an occasion to announce the launch of a multi-lingual pastoral center and website on abuse detection and prevention based at the Gregorian: 

Avoiding same mistakes

Among the more compelling Vatican presenters was Maltese Msgr. Charles Scicluna, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s handling of sex abuse cases. 

“If we don’t learn from the past, we’re going to repeat the same mistakes,” Msgr. Scicluna told reporters. Those mistakes include, he said, a lack of formation and support for priestly candidates, lack of adequate pastoral care for victims and their families, lack of consultation of professional advisors in the process of reviewing alleged abusers, lack of commitment and adherence to set standards, lack of full cooperation with civil authorities, a persistent problem of a culture of silence, and a misplaced concern for protecting the good name of the Church over pursuing the truth. 

Msgr. Scicluna noted that in recent years Church law has been modified to expedite investigations. But while the law now is clearer, he told the symposium, “this is not enough for peace and order in the community. Our people need to know that the law is being applied.” 

Expanded role

U.S. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, delivered the assembly’s opening address, and said his office’s experience over the past decade “suggested that the time had come to ensure that Church authorities throughout the world were prepared to respond appropriately to the crisis of sexual abuse of minors.” 

He said his office had received more than 4,000 reports of sexual abuse of minors in the past 10 years, and said they revealed the “many and complex issues” involved in these crimes. Cardinal Levada cited, in particular, “on the one hand, the inadequacy of an exclusively canonical [or Church law] response to this tragedy, and on the other, the necessity of a truly multi-faceted response.” For the congregation, he said, that has meant expanding its focus beyond its primary task of disciplining guilty clergy to concern for healing of victims, promotion of child protection programs, community education and ministerial formation. 

Ignoring spiritual angle

In a message to the participants, Pope Benedict XVI said he prayed they “may be helped to respond in a truly Christ-like manner to the tragedy of child abuse.” 

Many participants emphasized the need to listen with compassion to victims’ stories, a lesson given a human face by one speaker in particular. Marie Collins, a victim of clerical abuse as a child during a stay in a Dublin hospital, spoke of the victims’ need to receive spiritual counseling from Church leaders. Describing her own experience, Mrs. Collins told Our Sunday Visitor, “Nobody ever came to my husband or my son, not even from my parish, to ask ‘do you need help, would you like to talk about things”? 

“Counseling is offered, therapy is offered, and that’s wonderful,” Collins said, “but I think something should be offered for those few, maybe, who are having problems with their faith, who may want to return to the Church or who have lost their faith in God.” The clergy seem afraid to offer that in a general way because it could provoke a hostile backlash from the victims’ groups, Collins said, but Christ “sent the apostles out and didn’t say ‘You’re all going to be welcomed with open arms.’ The pastoral is what the Church is all about and it’s the one side I don’t think has gotten much attention.” 

A veteran advocate for the protection of children in the Church and a practicing Catholic, Collins said she has been shocked that the Church in many places has largely ignored the spiritual angle of the crisis. “It’s been all about lawyers and fighting cases, and hopefully providing therapy, but the actual spiritual side seems to have been written off, and I think it may be because of this idea that survivors are all outside the Church now.” 

Andrea Kirk Assaf writes from Rome.