By Father Paul Smyth, CMF
The Symposium, Towards Healing and Renewal from 6th – 9th February 2012 at the Gregorian University in Rome was attended by approximately 220 people; 91 bishops: 80 priests; 15 female religious, the rest being lay men and women with related experience, (victims, psychotherapists, lawyers etc.). During the mornings there were presentations focusing on different dimensions of the abuse of minors by clergy, with presenters coming from Ireland, UK, Malta, South Africa, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Philippines and Italy. With representatives from every continent it was the first time that the issue of child abuse by clergy had been explored from an international perspective rather than as a reaction to the crisis as it emerged in particular situations.
As one would expect given recent history, points highlighted in the presentations included:
- The primacy of the protection of Children.
- The need for complete openness and transparency on the part of the church
- The responsibility of the church to protect all of its members (accusers and accused)
While the sexual abuse of children by clergy has had horrific consequences for those who have been abused, their families and the Church; it is also clear that the way victims have been treated by bishops and clergy when they have tried to report abuse has often exacerbated feelings of betrayal and abuse. It was made clear that this is not acceptable and only serves to further damage the church. Compliance with the civil authorities should also be open and transparent with the intention being the protection of the truth and not the protection of an individual’s reputation.
The issue of Child abuse was presented as a global problem, and while cases are not reported in some cultures the silence does not mean that it does not exist. All areas of the Church should learn from the experience of the past decades and ensure that there are guidelines in place, so it is clear how these matters should be handled when they arise. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and take all accusations seriously.
During the conference an E-learning service was announced, based out of Germany and operating in collaboration with the Gregorian University, which seeks to educate people worldwide about dealing with accusations when they arise and how to ensure that safe environments are created that reduce the possibility of abuse taking place.
While the symposium was a good opportunity for providing information about the reality of Child abuse by clergy and how the matter should be dealt with, it failed to explore the deeper questions of how and why this situation had been able to occur in the Church. A number of participants alluded to the problem being a symptom of deeper issues in the church. With the focus on sexual child abuse by clergy broader issues such as power and clericalism despite being identified as needing further attention were not followed up on.
This symposium, the fruit of decades of experience, will only be of value if the guidelines and proposals presented are taken up and put into action by the church’s leadership. Bishops around the world need to view the guidelines for dealing with these matters not as an optional extra, but as an essential part of their pastoral practise. Personally I also hope that we recognise that this horrific issue challenges us, not to support just those who have been abused by Catholic clergy, but to create pastoral services that respond to an issue that some studies suggest effects 10% of all members of society.
Claretian Father Paul Smyth is the vicar general of the Claretian Missionaries in Rome.