The decadence since decades is defeated. The free-play of a filthy monster is arrested. Fence can no more eat up the crop. Shepherds can no more beat up their sheep. Doctors can no more injure their patients. Teachers are pulled up to be taught. The corridors of a holy institution are brought under a reality check of its unholy acts. Pope Francis credited for many ‘firsts’ in his papacy certainly cast the die and made history in calling a landmark Vatican summit on sexual abuse first of its kind in Rome. With a righteous courage he put his foot down saying, ‘enough is enough’ and struck a papal shot to purge the Church from the poison of clerical sexual abuse which has been making inroads from the wider society out there. The anti-abuse summit was indeed a different ‘Franciscan Solution’ unlike the well known Digital marketing firm Franciscan Solutions Pvt. Ltd in the business world.
The din and noise of the summit over, Vatican’s Synod Hall lay silent; it’s time to take a close look at the four-day historic Anti-abuse Meeting held on this February 21-24 in Rome. While Pope Francis named it a “ Catechesis”, to teach the pastors, the baffled participants metaphorically called it a “Miracle”: a miracle that was bound to happen out of the ‘cry of the little ones’ and pent- up grievances of the hapless victims of sexual abuse in the Church. The miracle-meeting was comprised of an assortment of people: 190 church leaders, including the presidents of many of the world's bishops' conferences, men's and women's religious orders and powerful cardinals from papal committee of top advisers, survivors of clerical abuse together with their advocates and faithful disheartened and disgusted by the church's failure to find an antidote to the poison coursing through it. There were Advocates for other victims of abuse and secrecy in the church, including for the children of priests and for nuns raped by clerics. All of them were meeting with church leaders and giving endless stream of interviews to an army of journalists from around the world indicating greater gusto about the Vatican than at the conclave in 2013 that elected Pope Francis.
Causes immediate and remote couldn’t but compel Pope Francis to call the landmark Feb. 21-24 event. Of the torrential inflow of complains of clerical sexual violence on minors and sexually vulnerable from countries across the globe has been inundating Vatican since decades, the two recently revealed outrageous- scandal that took hold of people's imagination were the revelation of the bad behavior of the highly regarded former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick with seminarians and was credibly accused of sexually abusing a child and that of the graphic accounts of abuse in the Pennsylvania grand jury report with added details of Episcopal cover-up. With such incidents that raised awareness of the universality of a systemic malady deeply rooted in a clerical culture and feeds on power, privilege and secrecy at the expense of the welfare of child victims and their families the summit was an urgent necessity. It was a sine quo non to restore trust between hierarchy and the rest of the believers, punish the guilty, bring justice to the victims and put in place concrete preventive measures.
Pope Francis opened the historic summit devoted to the scourge of child sexual abuse with poignant words, "We hear the cry of the little ones asking for justice. The holy people of God look to us and expect from us not simple and obvious condemnations, but concrete and effective measures." Vatican’s Synod Hall resounded with winged words like ‘responsibility, accountability, transparency as presentations were done by eminent Church leaders and others. While the expositions of the Church leaders sounded apologetic, those of the lay speakers were outright wakeup calls and eye-openers.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila (the Philippines), who made the first presentation titled "Smell of the Sheep”, said that “knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd's task”. In a humble submission he acknowledged that "Wounds have been inflicted by us bishops" on the faithful. The lack of response from church leaders, and the efforts to cover up scandals to protect abusers and the church, had injured its people.
Colombian Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez said that abuse and cover-up is the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest.” Similar views were expressed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta when he said, “We cannot fail to listen to victim-survivors. At the end of the day, it is a change of heart that is important”. We need the right motivation and, for that, we need to listen to different voices – including those of women, who (in the case of this Meeting) provided a “breath of fresh air.”
The first female speaker at the Meeting for the Protection of Minors Dr Linda Ghisoni, the Undersecretary for the Laity at the Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life speaking on ‘Accountability’ said it must be based on “Communion”. Knowledge of abuse and the extent of abuse is the fundamental starting point for accountability. Accountability in the Church is not so much a question of sociological norms, but of the theological concept of communion.
T he speech by Dr Linda Ghisoni highlighted the beauty and importance of feminine face of the Church, and Pope Francis stepped in and remarked, “Listening to Dr. Ghisoni, I heard the Church speaking about herself. That is, we have all spoken about the Church. In all the interventions. But this time it was the Church herself that spoke. It's not just a question of style: the feminine genius, reflected in the Church, which is woman.”
“Inviting a woman to speak is not to enter into the mode of an ecclesiastical feminism, because in the end every feminism ends up being a machismo with a skirt. No. Inviting a woman to speak about the wounds of the Church is to invite the Church to speak about herself, about the wounds she has. And this I believe is the step that we must take with great determination: woman is the image of the Church that is woman, bride, mother. A style. Without this style we would speak of the People of God, but as an organization, perhaps a trade union, but not as a family born of Mother Church.”
“The logic of Dr Ghisoni's thought was precisely that of a mother, and it ended with the story of what happens when a woman gives birth to a child. It is the feminine mystery of the Church that is bride and mother. It's not a question of giving more functions to women in the Church — yes, this is good, but that's not how the problem is solved — it's a question of integrating the woman as the image of the Church into our thinking… and also of thinking of the Church with the categories of a woman. Thank you for your testimony.”
Chicago Cardinal Blasé Cupich who spoke on accountability and synodality called for a "conversion of ecclesial cultures" and delineated four principles to guide the transformation of ecclesial culture: radical listening, lay witness, collegiality and accountability.
Sister Openibo, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus from Nigeria, spoke to the nearly 200 bishops gathered in Rome for the Vatican’s four-day summit on fighting child sexual abuse. She said “tears of sorrow flowed” after she watched “ Spotlight ,” the 2015 film that chronicled The Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse committed by priests and its cover-up by bishops “How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?” she queried.
Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki, who has covered the Vatican for over four decades, said at the summit that journalists can help the bishops root out the "rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones. But if you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists who seek the common good will be your worst enemies…”
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the only non- Western member of the organizing committee of the summit, offered deep insight by insisting that: Clerical abuse is not just a ' Western' problem, not a limited phenomenon. No bishop may say to him, ‘This problem of abuse in the Church does not concern me, because things are different in my part of the world. This, brothers and sisters, is just not true. There are cases even in Asia and Africa. The Church as a whole must conduct an examination of conscience on how it has handled the issue because we in leadership roles did not do enough. We are each responsible for the whole Church. The entire Church must take an honest look (and) act decisively to prevent abuse from occurring in the future, and to do whatever possible to foster healing for victims. He insisted that the Church ought to walk the path of “collegiality and synodality”.
The saving grace about the landmark summit was that it was brought to a conclusion with a moving penitential service for all the cardinals, bishops and religious superiors attending the meeting where the parable of the prodigal son was read from St. Luke’s Gospel. The session culminated in a confession of faults read by New Zealand Cardinal John Dew with the assembly responding, "Kyrie, eleison" — "Lord have mercy”. Pope Francis concluded the first-of-its-kind Vatican summit with promise that church will 'decisively confront' abuse. In his concluding speech the pope called clerics who abuse children "tools of Satan" and declared bluntly that such criminal behaviour is "utterly incompatible with the church's moral authority and ethical credibility."
The Church founded on the Apostles by Jesus Christ per se is holy. It is being defiled by the human elements in it as the fallen human nature is everywhere. But that doesn’t give us the license to tarnish God’s holy Church by yielding into abominable acts like sexual abuse. Sex is sacred, nay the whole body of a human person who is created and exalted by the Incarnation of the Son of God: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…(1Cor 6:19) What was the need of Jesus- the sinless Son of God to let himself to be flogged and break his body if it were not to tell us how terrible the wages of sin is and to expiate for the carnal sin of the world? Every baptized Christian, consecrated people in particular are bound by their baptismal and religious vows to live a holy life.
Contextually I recall a favourite phrase of Fr. Ivo Fernandez CSSR our dogmatic Theology professor of early 70s in Bangalore who used to enter the class saying, “To discomfort the comfort and comfort the discomfort is the duty of a true theologian”. Well, Pope Francis has done exactly the same by calling this historic summit on ‘clerical sexual abuse & child protection’. While those he has comforted (the abused) are happy with the meeting, not so are those he has discomforted (abusers).
Sexual abuse scandal is nothing new to the Church. It has been around since long and let to grow by the denial mode of the hierarchy which refused to own up responsibility and accountability. Much more than an aberration within the structure, the sex abuse crisis is born out of the sinful structures in the Church. Time is overdue for the global church to square up with the reality of this grave scandal. When all is said and done, reality stares us in our eyes: Decades of crime and cover up cannot be adequately confronted with a sheer four-day meeting in Rome. Sincere repentance that leads to conversion of hearts and tangible preventive measures are essential if the church is to take the road to healing and credibility.
(Published on 04th March 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 10)