I Am Asking in the Name of God
In the name of God, I ask that the culture of abuse be eradicated from the Church
I cannot begin without again asking for forgiveness. Our words of repentance will never be enough to console the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of members of the Church. We have deeply sinned: thousands of lives have been ruined by those who were supposed to care for and guide them. What we do will never be enough to try to repair all the damage that we have caused.
We want to look society in the eyes and say that we are committed to combating this evil. We seek a change in the culture that served as the framework for abuse, cover-up, and lack of action for many years. We are making new normative decisions to make available the necessary tools that will help us get to the bottom of this scourge. Considering how little has been done in the past, our commitment to the future can never be too great so that these crimes will not repeat themselves, be covered up, or become entrenched. The absolute responsibility of the Church for the drama of these abuses must be a sincere “never again.” It is our duty to sit face-to-face with the victims, their families, and their whole communities and explain the steps we have taken and the changes we are working on. The zero-tolerance policy, which began a few years ago to confront this inhuman phenomenon, must be our north star and guide. We must make the pain of the victims and their families our own, which will serve as an encouragement to reaffirm once more the commitment to guarantee the safety of minors and adults in vulnerable situations.
Merely one case in and of itself is a horror. Let us work so that there are none.
We cannot use as an excuse the fact that “the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” The abuse of minors is not only an atrocious crime, but, when committed by a member of the Church, it becomes a wound to God.
Our commitment must be to combat the crimes and prosecute the offenders when they happen. But we must also attend our focus and lend our ear humbly to the victims, open our hearts, and accompany them in the healing process to promote a culture of care beyond the Church’s confines.
At the same time, we are aware that the task of combating abuse through the mobilization of greater tools in the legal field will not be enough to go against the crimes if we do not act in an intentional way to prevent them. Thus, prevention must take a central role in this new stage on which we must walk.
There is an educational task that calls us as a society. If abuse is a plague that covers all levels of society, the answer must involve all of us in unison—not only to say “never again” to abuse. From the position of the Church we want to work with all of society in a coordinated fashion and across borders to prevent and combat abuse. The culture of care should go beyond the church.
People were exposed to damaging experiences because the Church did not do enough to protect minors. As a result, in our buildings, thousands of children were victims of severe crimes under our care. For this reason, we have been moved to acquire knowledge and devise responsible practices, which we will then make available to society in our desire to work together to fight these crimes.
The consequences of the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults last for years. I have referred to this crime as “psychological murder” in that it can cause irreparable harm to the mental health of the victims. Childhood is erased. In the part of life that should be filled with games and learning, instead, there are physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds.
One of the most significant failures, if not the gravest, has been not considering the stories and declarations of the victims. For this reason, in this new stage we are moving toward, we want to give a leading role to the people who have experienced this calvary.
In many cases, the abuse of minors is not reported, especially in a great majority of cases that occur in the family environment. “Rarely, in fact, do victims speak out and seek help. Behind this reluctance there can be shame, confusion, fear of reprisal, various forms of guilt, distrust of institutions, forms of cultural and social conditioning, but also lack of information about services and facilities that can help. Anguish tragically leads to bitterness, even suicide, or at times to seek revenge by doing the same thing.”
We need better conditions for all people who have been victims of abuse by members of the Church so that they feel safe to give their testimony. Therefore, it is crucial to generate practices that assure their integrity. We must not create situations that revictimize them but instead must ensure them spiritual and personal accompaniment, whether in judicial procedures or the everyday dimension of their lives.
It is also essential to prepare and form those who are in contact with minors and vulnerable adults to be able to read the unmistakable signs that abuse leaves on many of its victims. The answer is not to wait until the muffled and silenced cry of those who suffer abuse comes to light but rather to be attentive to the thousands of manifestations of desperation and calls for help. In many cases, it was not that individuals did not want to listen; instead, they did not know how to do so. This is something we want to change by training and equipping our institutions.
To accompany those who have been abused is a task that we put as the base of this renewed holistic approach in the fight against these crimes. All those who have a role in their ecclesial community must responsibly advocate for the respect and humane treatment of victims and their families.
“Anyone who welcomes one little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). To walk with and listen to the victims is the cornerstone on which we would like to build this new culture of prevention and fight abuse. Part of the work includes respecting the victims’ integrity and assuring them that their public lives will not be scrutinized.
With the same focus, we turn our eyes to those accused of these crimes. But, until they are sentenced, we must guarantee a just process to all those implicated, in the sense that the principle of in dubio pro reo
—innocent until proven guilty—must not be left by the wayside, even in the case of these horrific crimes. Even when the evidence is overwhelming, the testimonies are convincing, or it is evident that the person committed the offense, the right to defense must always be guaranteed.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has recommended that complaints of possible abuse not be discounted a priori, even if they are from nonidentified or nonidentifiable persons. The anonymity of the accusation must not lead us to automatically assume the claim is false, though caution must be taken in situations that come in this manner.
The consensus shows that ignoring such accusations simply because they are not signed with a name is harmful. Because of this, it is critical that the person who receives these accusations and indications of possible abuse exercise discernment. We are not to give immediate credit to these claims or deny them absolutely.
We know that the victims need time and space, as well as information on how to make claims. For this reason, we reject a culture of gossip that trivializes the crimes by allowing people to make false claims. This culture is difficult to eradicate within the Church.
The Curia has introduced principles to guide the various normative changes to fight against abuse in all its stages. We know that judicial action is not enough. Instead, we need a holistic approach to work toward this goal, from education to formation, prevention, and the fight against these crimes. But this does not mean that we should not proceed with firmness to apply rigorously canonical legislation foreseen for different situations.
Last year, in the promulgation of the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium
(Preach the Gospel), the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was formally instituted as part of the Roman Curia under the work of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The institutionalization of the vital work of this body does not seek to curtail the liberty of action or the thinking of its members; instead, it gives essential focus to creating more comprehensive tools to fight against abuse moving forward into the future.
Recently, we have also reframed the legislative typology from which we position ourselves against this crime. The cases of abuse by members of the clergy were originally considered to fall within the canonical section of “Offences Against Special Obligations”; however, beginning in 2021, in line with the focus on a more holistic approach that we have proposed, it is now designated under “Offences Against Human Life, Dignity and Liberty.”