Though no sweeping reforms or changes in policy came out of Pope Francis’ Feb. 21-24 summit on the protection of minors, one thing supporters say the gathering did yield has been a sore point for years in the abuse crisis: a shift in attitude recognizing it as a global problem.
Speaking at a Feb. 25 press conference hosted by the International Union of Superiors General on their participation in the Feb. 21-24 summit, Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria, one of just three women tapped to speak at the summit, said she felt “that there were people, bishops, cardinals, who did not believe in some of the things I was saying.”
Noting how she focused largely on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious since it was the discussion topic for last week’s gathering, Openibo said some bishops from Africa in particular felt there were “more important” issues to discuss, such as slave labor, trafficking and sex tourism.
Irish Sister Pat Marie, who also participated in the gathering, said she had a similar experience at the beginning of last week’s discussion. At first, she said there was “a certain resistance by some saying this is not a problem in my part of the world” but later added that she was “very impressed by the willingness to learn and the willingness to move” shown by the bishops who participated.
Since the clerical sexual abuse scandals erupted some three decades ago, they’ve at times been pegged as a primarily “American” or “Western” problem by Church leaders in countries where the crisis has yet to erupt.
Cracking down has been met with a certain level of resistance by prelates in regions such as Africa or Asia, or even in Italy, who see the problem as secondary in comparison to other, more pressing issues.
However, if there is one take-away from the summit, it was that making sure each of the 190 participants – the majority of whom were from Africa – understood that the problem of clerical abuse is a universal one.
During Friday’s morning session, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, a member of the pope’s council of cardinals and one of four members of the summit’s organizing committee, said, “No bishop may say to himself, ‘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,” he said. Acknowledging that “we in leadership roles did not do enough,” Gracias said 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.”
Similarly, Openibo in her own speech reinforced the idea, saying she has heard “many Africans and Asians say that this is not our issue in countries in Africa and Asia.”
“It is a problem in Europe, the Americas, Canada and Australia,” she said, adding that other problems in the region such as poverty, illness, war, and violence “does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored…The Church has to be proactive in facing it.”
Prelates did not mince words, vocalizing the Church’s failures to properly address the abuse crisis and calling for the “humility” to recognize these errors and to repent.
In his homily for the closing Mass, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said the Church’s leaders have not always shown God’s mercy to victims of sexual abuse.
“We have preferred instead the indifference of the man of earth and the desire to protect the Church’s reputation and even our own. We have shown too little mercy, and therefore we will receive the same, because the measure we give will be the measure we receive in return. We will not go unpunished, as David says, and we have already known punishment,” he said.
Survivors themselves had a mixed reaction to the summit, with some praising the event itself as a step in the right direction, and others voicing the opinion that the discussion fell short of zero-tolerance.
Discussion inside the summit touched on defrocking priests accused of abuse and publishing the names of priests accused of abuse, which were brought up both by Francis in his 21 points and by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a leading authority in the protection of minors in the Catholic Church.
Neither were in favor of publishing the names of all accused clergy, arguing that for an allegation to go public, it must be found to be “credible” or “substantiated.
There was also insistence from several prelates that once a priest is found guilty of abuse, “laicizing” or “defrocking” them is not always the right answer, especially when the abuser is older with no one to care for and is no longer a harm to society.
Some advocacy groups have expressed disappointment with the outcome, with an Italian network saying that rather than “zero tolerance” the summit delivered “zero credibility,” and an American watchdog group lamenting what it called “oddly negligible results.”
The Italian group Rete L’abuso, the country’s lone network for abuse survivors, pulled no punches, dispatching a statement on Sunday with the headline, “Credibility zero.”
“The summit called by Pope Francis ended with a hole in the water,” it said, using an Italian expression to mean “useless” and “futile.”
“It responded to the world with a banality and intellectual misery that humiliates victims and offends Catholics,” it said.
However, Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz was more optimistic, at one point praising Francis’s efforts to amend the Chilean abuse crisis, which last spring prompted all the country’s bishops to submit their resignations, and voiced hope for the outcome of the summit, which he sees as a positive step forward.
Rather than welcoming the meek personalities unlikely to challenge the Vatican on an issue, the invited participants who were present are generally known to be more critical, showing that the Vatican might finally be ready to build more formal bridges with the survivor community.
So while organizers of the summit in advance warned that expectations should not be set too high, and while critics would certainly argue that more ought to be done, there were at least some signs of progress, and for the first global gathering on the abuse issue, leaving with a universal recognition that it is in fact everyone’s problem is not the worst place to close the discussion.
Elise Harris is the senior correspondent for Crux in Rome.