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Bishops' summit on sex abuse: An Asian perspective

Rome meeting was a positive start but victims must keep rallying and enlisting the support of the media to fix the Church
Bishops' summit on sex abuse: An Asian perspective

India's Virginia Saldanha, center, who serves as secretary of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and Ecclesia of Women in Asia, takes part in a protest by victims of sexual abuse and members of Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome on Feb. 23. The ECA, a global organization of prominent survivors and activists, was in Italy for the historic papal summit on the sex abuse crisis within the Church. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)


Published: April 12, 2019 04:21 AM GMT
Updated: April 12, 2019 07:47 AM GMT

The voices of survivors and advocates rallying against clerical sex abuse echoed around newsrooms and living rooms the world over when bishops met in Rome from Feb. 18-26, making it a hallowed ground of the wounded.

The 190 bishops at the summit heard the testimonies of a few survivors, live-streamed into the hall. The organizing committee had a face-to-face meeting with 12 survivors in Rome a day before the summit.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of the U.K. and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, accepted the invitation of the survivors' group Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) to interact with victims and advocates from all over the world.

At the group's invitation, I joined the ECA in Rome from Feb. 17-25, representing India and Asia where the voices of abuse survivors are muzzled, muffled and sporadic.

At a press briefing on the first day of the summit, not surprisingly, it was reported that the bishops of Asia and Africa stated that sex abuse was not their problem! This came despite considerable evidence to the contrary.

At the outset, Pope Francis handed the participants a list of 21 points for consideration and implementation.

The summit focused on the abuse of minors. Vulnerable adults were implicitly included but the definition was ambiguous.

In Asia, the abuse of nuns and vulnerable women, who routinely approach priests in times of trouble, is a big issue, especially for nuns in diocesan congregations.

All speakers at the summit spoke in a heartfelt way about the wounds of the survivors. While the Western bishops dealt with the issue of abuse candidly, the two prelates from Asia skirted the issue in a typically stoic manner.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila spoke emotively as he compared the suffering of victims to that of Jesus being crucified. He encouraged bishops to feel "the wounds of the victims."

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay stated that, "the experience of abuse seems dramatically present in certain parts of the world."

He spoke of collegial responsibility and accountability, advising fraternal correction and the need to cultivate "fraternal relationships, where in such cases we don't have to worry about damaging ourselves."

Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich of Chicago focused on the synodality, or process of mutual listening, of the baptized, "in a discernment and reform that penetrates throughout the Church."

He referred to an apostolic letter titled, Come una madre amorevole, which sets forth procedures addressing, among other issues, bishops who mishandle abuse cases. He advised a re-reading of the letter.

He also suggested four orientations rooted in synodality: Radical listening; the move to incorporate lay faithful in every effort to identify and construct structures of accountability for prevention of abuse; sustained collegiality for reciprocal exchanges of mutual knowledge; and compassionate accompaniment for all.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), detailed the canonical process for dealing with allegations of abuse against a cleric.

The process is heavily biased in favor of clerics, while the rights of a victim are in the hands of the bishop who could negate them completely!

In another first, three women were invited to address a meeting of bishops in the Vatican. Their speeches were courageous, forthright and hard-hitting.

"Inviting a woman to speak on the wounds of the Church … is a step we should be taking very decisively," Pope Francis said

He alluded to the importance of listening to women, a culture the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences has cultivated but in the last decade or so regressed from.

"We parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society. Hypocrites at times? Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long?" chided Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo.

"Bishops need to choose whether to side with abusers or victims — covering up crimes is as serious as the crimes themselves. You are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies," warned Valentina Alazraki.

Linda Ghisoni, an undersecretary at the Vatican office for laity, family and life, said, "Bishops should kneel in penitence before their victims."

She said this would be the appropriate posture for church leaders to indicate their willingness to take responsibility for past harmful actions.

Sadly, the bishops did not kneel before victims, nor did they clearly indicate whose side they were on by the end of the summit. A request by survivors relayed by the ECA for zero tolerance was ignored.

The summit had problems with using the term "zero tolerance," fearing it called for punitive punishment for the offender. It was referred to as a "limited approach, which does not deal with all aspects of the problem."

Much emphasis was placed on the idea of being "innocent until proven guilty," and the necessity of due canonical process that is apart from civil procedure, unless forbidden by state law.

However, there was a significant diffidence when it came to discussing any kind of punishment.

In the closing liturgy, Pope Francis attributed the phenomenon of abuse to the forces of evil. He called for humiliation, self-accusation, prayer, and penance as the only way to overcome the spirit of evil.

He reiterated the Church's commitment to fighting this evil, both in and outside the Church, and stressed that, "if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness."

In the final analysis, it is left to each bishops' conference to put in place mechanisms, structures and procedures to deal with allegations of sex abuse by priests.

They have to follow a new "handbook" that will be published within a month or two of the meeting.

While there was an emphasis on the involvement of experts and laity in the implementation and procedures of dealing with abuse, monitoring mechanisms were not spelt out.

This puts pressure on advocates and survivors in each country to continue their activism to ensure something concrete emerges to resolve these problems plaguing the Church.

The media will remain a reliable partner in this long pilgrimage towards wholeness in the Church. 

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women's issues based in Mumbai.

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