VATICAN CITY – An expert on abuse prevention offered “practical suggestions” to participants at a Vatican summit on child sexual abuse on Thursday, while two cardinals encouraged bishops to work together to support victims of clerical abuse.
Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told participants in the Vatican’s Meeting of the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences on Safeguarding of Minors that bishops should make known that Catholics have both “the duty and the right” to report any sort of clerical sexual misconduct or abuse to church officials.
Archbishop Scicluna advised that the contact information for church leaders be made publicly available and easy to access. He called for the establishment of protocols governing how the church handles abuse, and he encouraged church leaders to cooperate with civil authorities and other experts on abuse.
“It is important that every allegation is investigated with the help of experts and that the investigation is concluded without unnecessary delay,” he said. He also noted that the practice of establishing review boards and safeguarding commissions has “proved to be beneficial” in areas where it is commonplace.
It can be helpful for bishops to work together and share their experiences of how they have dealt with their priests being accused of abuse, Archbishop Scicluna said.
“As shepherds of the Lord’s flock we should not underestimate the need to confront ourselves with the deep wounds inflicted on victims of sex abuse by members of the clergy,” he said, adding that bishops need to be like Simon of Cyrene, who helped Christ carry the cross, by assisting abuse victims who carry the cross of their abuse.
Archbishop Scicluna, a canon lawyer, also called for just canonical processes that respect the rights of accused clerics.
“The essence of a just process requires that the accused is presented with all arguments and evidence against him; that the accused is given the full benefit of the right of presenting his defense; that judgment is given based on the facts of the case and the law applicable to the case; that a reasoned judgment or decision is communicated in writing to the accused and that the accused enjoy a remedy against a judgment or decision that aggrieves him,” he said.
A canonical penal process can have three results, he explained: one in which the accused is guilty; one in which neither the guilt nor the innocence of the accused can be proven; or one in which the accused is exonerated.
While the guilty and innocent verdicts are relatively easy for a bishop to digest, a verdict of decisio dismissoria, where the guilt of the accused is unclear, can be problematic for bishops to deal with, Archbishop Scicluna. In these situations, particularly when a claim of abuse is credible but not proven, a bishop or religious superior should exercise prudence, and consult with experts in deciding what to do next. Whatever step is taken, he said, it should be guaranteed that children and young people will be kept safe.
“An essential aspect of the exercise of stewardship in these cases is the proper interface with civil jurisdiction,” Archbishop Scicluna said.
Misconduct that rises to a criminal level must be reported to state authorities, who can proceed to investigate the claim and punish the crime or award damages to victims. Bishops should be aware, he explained, that the conclusion of a criminal investigation and a canonical penal process may be different, and that there are different standards of evidence in these systems, as well as different statutes of limitations.
Working with civil authorities can help better safeguard children, he explained. He cited the example of a priest accused of possessing child pornography as a situation in which civil authorities are likely better equipped to investigate and charge someone than a church official.
Archbishop Scicluna encouraged his brother bishops to focus their efforts on preventing sexual abuse, which he said is achieved through a more thorough screening process of candidates for seminary, particularly on the topics of celibacy and chastity.
“A just and balanced understanding of the demands of priestly celibacy and chastity should be underpinned by a profound and healthy formation in human freedom and sound moral doctrine,” he said. Those studying to be priests need to “nurture and grow in that spiritual fatherhood” that should be their motivation for their work in ministry.
Bishops and religious superiors should also embrace a sense of spiritual fatherhood, he said, through the priests they lead. A good bishop will lead by example, and will follow abuse protocols and codes of conduct.
“Above all, the ordinary is responsible in guaranteeing and promoting the personal, physical, mental and spiritual well-being of his priests.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle of Manila said in his Thursday address that bishops need to better understand the wounds caused by clerical sexual abuse, adding that he fears that bishops have “found the stench of filth inflicted on children and vulnerable people [they] were supposed to protect” to be “too strong to endure.”
Cardinal Tagle drew inspiration from the Gospel story where Thomas doubts that Jesus has resurrected, and has to touch the wounds of Christ before he can proclaim that Jesus is his Lord and his God. The action of touching Christ’s wounds was “fundamental to the act and confession of faith.”
Like Thomas, Cardinal Tagle said, bishops need to be “constantly in touch with the wounds of humanity,” which they can do by confronting the abuse crisis and their own failings, and by providing assistance to those who are hurting.
“Our people need us to draw close to their wounds and acknowledge our faults if we are to give authentic and credible witness to our faith in the Resurrection,” he said. He encouraged people to discard any fears of being wounded and to instead “draw close to the wounds of our people.”
Cardinal Tagle argued that a two-pronged approach of justice for those who were abused and forgiveness for abusers is the best way for the church to move forward in confronting the abuse crisis.
“Regarding victims, we need to help them express their deep hurts and to heal from them,” said Cardinal Tagle. “Regarding the perpetrators, we need to serve justice, help them to face the truth without rationalization, and at the same time not neglect their inner world, their own wounds.”
Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá condemned a culture of clericalism as the “deeper root” of the abuse crisis. Clericalism, he said, is a force that converts ministry “into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest.”
Clericalism, said Cardinal Gómez, has led to “serious errors of authority” and has exacerbated the abuse crisis in the church. Bishops are “hardly ever aware” that clericalism underlies their ministry, he said, and there must be an effort to “unmask” this mentality and bring about positive changes.
Bishops are responsible for increasing their own awareness that they are dependent upon each other and that the church and her bishops have failed in the past in their response to abuse.
“We often proceed like the hirelings who, on seeing the wolf coming, flee and leave the flock unprotected,” Cardinal Gómez said. Fleeing, he said, takes the form of ignoring claims of abuse, failing to assist survivors of abuse, or attempting to silence survivors with monetary settlements. This “clerical mentality” places the church above both justice and the suffering experienced by those who were abused, he explained.
In order to effectively protect the vulnerable, Cardinal Gómez called for both a unified front among the bishops, as well as a “code of conduct” for bishops that provides a framework for the best way to handle allegations of abuse by members of the clergy.
“Its obligatory nature will be a guarantee that we all act in unison and in the right direction, since it gives us clear norms to control our conduct and provides concrete suggestions for the necessary corrective measures,” he said, pointing out that this code of conduct would be “a concrete way of strengthening the communion that is born of episcopal collegiality.”
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