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On The Protection Of Minors : Getting Our Act Together

On The Protection Of Minors : Getting Our Act Together

February 2019 was a painful month for the Catholic Church. Two of the most high-powered officials of the Catholic Church were in the eye of the storm. Early in February, the Vatican  defrocked Theodore McCarrick , a former cardinal and Archbishop of Washington, D.C., expelling him from the priesthood. A church tribunal found him guilty of sexually abusing both minors and adults. At one time McCarrick was powerful and influential person not only in Washington but in the inner Church Circles.

Towards the end of the month, Cardinal George Pell in Australia was convicted for child sexual abuse. His conviction rocked the Catholic Church, where for years he has been one of its highest-ranked officials- even as the powerful Vatican Treasurer . Pell made his name as a determined figure who championed traditional Catholic values and conservative views against same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. However, in recent years, Pell’s career was dogged first by claims that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests, and then later that he himself was an abuser. He has always denied any wrongdoing, but has been found guilty of abusing two boys in 1996. The latest news is that Pell is going to challenge the conviction; whether he is able to prove his innocence is anyone’s guess- but the conviction has damaged his reputation immensely.

Strangely enough, the McCarrick and Pell scandals came before and after, a pathbreaking Meeting (21-24 February) in the Vatican on the ‘Protection of Minors in the Church.’ The 190 participants included Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, leaders of the Oriental Catholic Churches, Ordinaries, Superiors General of men and women religious, prefects of Vatican dicasteries, some members of the Roman Curia and the Council of Cardinals besides some invited speakers.

The sexual abuse of minors has become a major scandal in the Catholic Church. Whilst some of the abuses took place several years ago and are now coming to light, there are many others that have erupted in recent years in Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, and the United States, and they show no signs of abating. The meeting in the Vatican this last week was not only necessary but also very urgent. It was convened by Pope Francis as a sign that he and the Church hierarchy are acknowledging that  the sexual-abuse crisis has become a global issue. There were three inter-related themes for the meeting: responsibility , accountability, and transparency. There were some incisive talks given at the meeting, with value time spent on prayer, reflection and deliberations.

At the outset of the meeting, Pope Francis shared with the participants some "guidelines" to help their work over the next few days. These were 21 "Reflection Points" formulated by various Commissions and Episcopal Conferences. The Pope described them as “a simple starting point” that “do not take away from the creativity that must be present in this meeting”. The 21 Reflection Points are:

1. to prepare a practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key
moments when a case emerges.

2. to equip oneself with listening structures that include trained and expert people who can initially discern the cases of the alleged victims.

3. to establish the criteria for the direct involvement of the Bishop or of the Religious Superior.

4. to implement shared procedures for the examination of the charges, the protection of the victims and the right of defense of the accused.

5. to inform the civil authorities and the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with civil and canonical norms.

6. to make a periodic review of protocols and norms to safeguard a protected environment for minors in all pastoral structures: protocols and norms based on the integrated principles of justice and charity so that the action of the Church in this matter is in conformity with her mission.

7.  to establish specific protocols for handling accusations against Bishops.

8. to accompany, protect and treat victims, offering them all the necessary support for a complete recovery.

9. to increase awareness of the causes and consequences of sexual abuse through ongoing formation initiatives of Bishops, Religious Superiors, clerics and pastoral workers.

10. to prepare pathways of pastoral care for communities injured by abuses and penitential and recovery routes for the perpetrators.

11. to consolidate the collaboration with all people of good will and with the operators of mass media in order to recognize and discern real cases from false ones and accusations of slander, avoiding rancor and insinuations, rumors and defamation (cf. Pope Francis’ address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2018).

12. to raise the minimum age for marriage to sixteen years.

13. to establish provisions that regulate and facilitate the participation of lay experts in
investigations and in the different degrees of judgment of canonical processes concerning sexual and / or power abuse.

14. to actualize the right to defense: the principle of natural and canon law of presumption of innocence must also be safeguarded until the guilt of the accused is proven. Therefore, it is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by the dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and the definitive condemnation.

15. to observe the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime committed. To decide that priests and bishops guilty of sexual abuse of minors leave the public ministry.

16. to introduce rules concerning seminarians and candidates for the priesthood or religious life. Be sure that there are programs of initial and ongoing formation to help them develop their human, spiritual and psychosexual maturity, as well as their interpersonal relationships and their behavior.

17. to ensure  psychological evaluations by qualified and accredited experts for candidates for the priesthood and consecrated life.

18. to establish norms governing the transfer of a seminarian or religious aspirant from one seminary to another; as well as a priest or religious from one diocese or congregation to another.

19. to formulate mandatory codes of conduct for all clerics, religious, service personnel and volunteers to outline appropriate boundaries in personal relationships. Be specific about the necessary requirements for staff and volunteers and check their criminal record.

20. to explain all information and data on the dangers of abuse and its effects, how to recognize signs of abuse and how to report suspected sexual abuse. All this must take place in collaboration with parents, teachers, professionals and civil authorities.

21. to establish a group (where it has not yet been in place) easily accessible for victims who want to report any crimes. Such an organization should have a certain autonomy with respect to the local ecclesiastical authority and include expert persons (clerics and laity) who know how to express the Church's attention to those who have been offended by improper attitudes on the part of clerics.

There was no ‘final statement’ of the Meeting. Whilst it was a time for serious introspection, no one expected ‘concrete proposals or resolutions’ to emerge. The 21-points by Pope Francis were directional and will surely be the ‘way of proceeding’ for Bishops and Superiors all over the world. On the other hand, outside the meeting, there were some visible and vocal victim-survivors who were demanding ‘zero tolerance’ to those guilty of abuse of minors.

Pope Francis set the tone for the plan of action, in his powerful homily during the concluding Eucharistic Celebration on Sunday 24 February. He said, The time has come, then, to work together to eradicate the evil of child abuse.  The time has come to find a correct equilibrium of all values in play and to provide uniform directives for the Church, avoiding the two extremes of a ‘justicialism’ provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure, and a defensiveness that fails to confront the causes and effects of these grave crimes”.

He emphasized that, “the Church’s aim will be to hear, watch over, protect, and care for abused, exploited, and forgotten children, wherever they are. To achieve that goal, “the Church must rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by little ones”. Speaking about the Meeting he said that, “it has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies. Even today, it is difficult to get a true idea of the real extent of the phenomenon, since sexual abuse is often not reported, “particularly the great number committed within families”.  He went on to state that, “ we are thus facing a universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere, and affecting everyone. Yet we need to be clear that while gravely affecting our societies as a whole, this evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church. Indeed, 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”; adding that, “ the Church feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves. If in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness”.

Pope Francis concluded his homily with his “heartfelt 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: this is demanded by all the many victims hidden in families and in the various settings of our societies”.

Pope Francis surely did not mince words in his homily. The Cardinals, Bishops and others present were surely listening. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said the Meeting had been fruitful and had revealed to the bishops the deep wounds caused by the abuse in the Church. In a statement he said, “ We owe survivors an unyielding vigilance that we may never fail them again. How then to bind the wounds? Intensify the Dallas Charter. Pope Francis, whom I want to thank for this assembly, called us to ‘concrete and effective measures.’ A range of presenters from cardinals to other bishops to religious sisters to lay women spoke about a code of conduct for bishops, the need to establish specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops, user-friendly reporting mechanism, and the essential role transparency must play in the healing process. Achieving these goals will require the active involvement and collaboration of the laity. The Church needs their prayers, expertise, and ideas. As we have learned from diocesan review boards, a comprehensive range of skills is required to assess allegations and to ensure that local policies and procedures are regularly reviewed so that our healing response continues to be effective. All of the models discussed this week rely upon the good help of God’s people”.

The meeting is also a wake-up call for the Church in India. It is left to be seen if the Bishops and superiors get their act together and address this serious issue with deep commitment and objectivity, with the responsibility, accountability and transparency required from them. In the recent past, there have been accusations of clerics abusing minors. Structurally, the distribution of responsibility between local dioceses and the Vatican has meant that blame and accountability for abusive clerics have been constantly deferred, creating a system for plausible deniability and fertile ground for cover-ups. Abusive clerics are often ‘transferred’ to another place; but the issue is not addressed.  The guidelines and directions provided by the Vatican Meeting are sufficient for all Dioceses in India to formulate their own protocols regarding the sexual abuse of minors and to act expeditiously and sensitively whenever such accusations are made.

It is also necessary that all those who exercise responsibility in the Church in India, be aware of ‘The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act ‘(POCSO Act) 2012 which was established to protect the children against offences like sexual abuse, sexual harassment and pornography. It was formed to provide a child-friendly system for trial underneath which the perpetrators could be punished. The Act defines a child as any person below eighteen years of age. It also makes provisions for avoiding the re-victimisation of the child at the hands of the judicial system. Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 received the President’s assent on June 19, 2012. The Act also makes it mandatory to report cases of the sexual abuse of minors. It makes it the legal duty of a person aware of the offence to report the sexual abuse. In case he fails to do so, the person can be punished with six months’ imprisonment or fine. Not being aware with the provisions of this important Act (and its amendments in 2018) is no excuse for anybody.

In his homily on 24 February, Pope Francis also said, “I would mention the ‘best practices’ formulated under the guidance of the World Health Organization by a group of ten international bodies that developed and approved a packet of measures called INSPIRE: ‘Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children’”(Each letter of the word  INSPIRE represents one of the strategies, and for the most part has shown to be preventively effectual against various types of violence, in addition to having benefits in areas such as mental health, education and the reduction of crime. The seven strategies are the following:  Implementation and Enforcement of Laws (for example, avoiding violent discipline and limiting access to alcohol and firearms);  Norms and Values that need changing (for example, those that condone sexual abuse against girls or aggressive behaviour among boys);  Safe Environments (for example, identifying neighbourhood violence “hotspots” and dealing with local causes through policies that resolve problems and through other interventions);  Parent and Caregiver Support(for example, by providing formation to parents for their children, and to new parents);  Income and Economic Strengthening (such as microcredit and formation concerning equity in general);  Response and Support Services (for example, ensuring that children exposed to violence can have access to effective emergency care and can receive adequate psychosocial support);  Education and Life Skills (for example, ensuring that children attend school and equipping them with social skills). Some concrete steps for all to put into practice immediately!

It was not without reason that Jesus said, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”. (Mt 18:6). The Church in India needs to get its act together NOW through responsibility , accountability, and transparency.

(The writer is a human rights activist. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 04th March 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 10)