According to Italian Archbishop Franco Coppola, the pope’s ambassador in Mexico, the local Catholic Church still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing clerical sexual abuse, even if much has been done in recent years.
“The attention given to us by the media is very positive, as it forces us to cleanse our Church and our hearts,” he told Crux on Saturday. “We need to cleanse the Church of sexual abuse, as well as abuses of power and conscience, of thinking that it’s OK to take advantage of one’s position to commit a crime that has nothing to do with the faith, the Gospel or the Church.”
“It’s a necessary, even if painful purification,” Coppola said.
The archbishop was in Rome last week taking part in a June 13-15 summit of nuncios called by Pope Francis. He was appointed as papal representative to Mexico less than three years ago, taking over the job from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, currently the nuncio to the United States.
After the meeting was over, Coppola sat down with Crux for over 45 minutes at the Santa Marta residence, the hotel within Vatican grounds where Pope Francis lives, to discuss the situation of clerical sexual abuse in Mexico, the Rome meeting and also the relationship of the Mexican Church with the Church in the United States and the ongoing migrant crisis from south to north.
“The mission we have, as priests, and as unworthy as we are to have it, is to represent the heart of the Lord who loves us,” he said. “It is a terrible betrayal that, representing the heart of Him who gave his life for his sheep, instead of giving their lives, some priests steal the life of others.”
What follows are excerpts of Coppola’s interview with Crux.
Crux: How do you see the situation of the Church in Mexico when it comes to fighting clerical sexual abuse?
Coppola: Much has been done, but there’s a lot of work still to be done. I can’t say I’m an expert of the situation in other countries, but I do believe that the situation in Mexico is not too different than it is in most of the world.
When we first began facing this criminal phenomenon some 40 years ago, the reaction was one of believing that it was a sin, a fragility for which one could ask forgiveness and then be transferred to a new parish. I think that we were unaware of the deep psychological wounds abuse leaves, and also the deep psychological problem that the abuser has. Due to this ignorance, the “cure” was often to move the priest from one parish to another, without realizing that this meant that the problem was spread and not addressed.
In addition, there was a false conception of the good name of the Church: it was considered better not to talk about these matters instead of facing them and punishing them accordingly. Thanks to God, [due to] the work of journalists and the progress of science, we now have clarity about what these crimes are. It is true, there are people within and without the Church who realize that reality has changed and face it accordingly, and there are others who still resist.
I have to say that one of the advantages that the nuncio has in Mexico is that this is a country that can have many problems -and we have them- but from the point of view of the Catholic faith, there is a devotion to the pope difficult to find in other countries. This means that some might not even realize how reality has changed, but they see the pope’s message and the laws he’s promulgated, and they are starting to acknowledge that this is a problem that must be faced head-on.
I have been in Mexico for less than three years. I cannot give general judgments, but the impression that we have in our Latin cultures - as an Italian I feel like a close relative - is that these are chauvinistic cultures, where the role of women is not developed as it should be. It is also a culture where, if there is no education, it is violent. The less education there is, the more violence there is.
Surely all of the Latin countries, including Italy or Mexico, have much to do still when it comes to education, because it is the one thing that allows children or a young person to understand that they have the right to be respected.
Regarding the problem of clerical sexual abuse in particular, speaking as a nuncio and as a priest, I think that a lot of progress is being made within the Church thanks to the help from the rest of society, that has pushed us to become better and continues to do so, even if for those who’ve been abused nothing will, understandably, be enough.
According to UNICEF, 95 percent of abuses take place within a family environment. This means that everyone has to grow in the protection of minors, first and foremost the Catholic Church. If we’re going to be a witness on this issue, there’s much still to be done.
In this regard, the attention given to us by the media is very positive, as it forces us to cleanse our Church and our hearts. We need to clean the Church from sexual abuse, as well as abuses of power and conscience, of thinking that it’s OK to take advantage of one’s position to commit a crime that has nothing to do with the faith, the Gospel or the Church.
It’s a necessary, even if painful purification.
Are things getting done in Mexico when it comes to fighting clerical sexual abuse?
I think that at the bishop’s level, they are realizing that this is something that has to be addressed, and you can see concrete steps being taken in Mexico.
I cannot say that everything is going correctly, but there is progress. Above all, among those responsible, the new leadership of the Mexican bishops’ conference is aware of the importance of working on this issue. A commission for the protection of minors has also been created to advise the dioceses on how to deal with cases they have, be it from the canonical point of view or the criminal point of view. Many bishops have turned to this commission for help and are catching up.
Today I can say that most of the crimes denounced before ecclesiastical authorities have been taken to civil authorities, with the exception of those cases in which the victims themselves or their legal guardians expressly asked, and before a notary, not to. This occurs when the victims are still minors and the parents do not want to re-victimize them with the process. But, anyway, there is a legal obligation on this point.
Mexican law is particular on this issue: in many crimes, civil authorities can only investigate if the victim or the legal guardian makes the allegation. Someone with knowledge of a crime or even witnesses cannot make the report, only inform the authorities.
It is true that in the past we did not have this attitude of automatically going to civil authorities, even when a canonical investigation took place. In the case of Mexico, some 150 men were removed from the priesthood, and another 200 cases are being processed.
I have to say, however, that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that in Mexico, 97 percent of crimes go unpunished. Basically, you have to have bad luck to get caught. This leads to a great distrust in the justice system, but even so, we insist that the allegation to civil authorities must be made.
In February, Pope Francis summoned the presidents of the bishops’ conferences to the Vatican to talk about the protection of minors. Did you have the opportunity to talk about the subject, particularly about the role of Vatican diplomacy this week?
Yes, especially because the last motu proprio by the pope, Vos estis lux mundi [“You are the light of the world”], pays close attention to the matter, calling the nuncios to act. The idea was established in the previous motu proprio, “As a loving Mother.”
“As a loving Mother” gave the lines, laws and principles, but from the technical, legislative point of view, there was a lack of procedure, what to do and how to do it. The first problem is what to do when a bishop does not do his duty. The pope established that the competence belongs to the archbishop, and everything has to go through the nunciature, to determine if indeed the archbishop did what he had to do.
Is there a will to deal with the issue?
There is something that the Holy Father asked us to do, and that all bishops have to do: listen to the victims. If you do not talk to the victims, you cannot understand the drama they’ve been put through. And if one, thanks be to God, has not lived it, one cannot imagine the impact. I have had the opportunity to listen to some victims, and it is very, very hard. What they experienced is horrible.
If you imagine things from the outside, it’s like watching a film. But if you talk to the victims, who talk about the impact that the abuses they suffered have had on their hearts, one cannot remain insensitive. In front of a wounded heart, who speaks to you, sometimes with a lot of anger because they are still hurt, one cannot but be moved.
And on this point, we have a lot of progress to make still. Many times, out of a sense of justice or trying to keep a distance, the bishop who has had to act as a judge too, didn’t meet with survivors. But the bishops have to listen to both the victims and the accused to be able to give an adequate judgement.
A judge, in a trial, listens to both parties …
Precisely. Here there is still much to be done, but this is something the new motu proprio by Pope Francis asks for. I do think that when the issue is addressed at the next meeting of the Mexican bishops’ conference in November, talking to victims and survivors will be recommended.
We have important work ahead of us to try to recover a trust of so many boys and girls whom we’ve betrayed, and also to train priests differently so that this does not happen again. Not only because the structures are transparent and they cannot hide their crimes, but so that they have hearts that are not allowed to abuse others, so that their hearts are what the heart of a priest or a bishop are called to be.
The mission we have, as priests, and as unworthy as we are to have it, is to represent the heart of the Lord who loves us.
It is a terrible betrayal that, representing the heart of Him who gave his life for his sheep, instead of giving their lives, some priests steal the life of others.
You mentioned the “neighbors of the North.” How is the situation of dialogue between the Church in Mexico and that in the United States today, given the political and migration situations?
I have been amazed to see the “complicity in good” that exists between the two churches. There are regular meetings between the bishops on both sides of the borders. I participated last year in a meeting in Piedras Negras. It seems that the border dioceses are prepared for migrants, with Hispanic bishops. There is a great understanding, welcome. At the church level, there is no problem.
And at the state level?
I think President Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, each has their own character. I was the last one to arrive, but it seems to me that the attitude that López Obrador has shown is that of one who does not want confrontations, but a dialogue with our great neighbor to the north.
The problems, clearly, are great, but it seems to me that this agreement they have recently reached to avoid tariffs is important. It refers to the plan that Mexico has developed to promote progress in southern Mexico and in the three countries that are on the border, which is where most of the migrants come from.
If you want to put a brake on migration, you have to help the development of the countries people are leaving from. Nobody leaves their home, facing a trip that can be deadly, for fun. They do it because they look and feel compelled to do so. If an alternative is offered, nobody will leave. The real solution is not to build walls but to help the development of this less fortunate part of our continent.