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Jesuit's wake-up call on church sex abuse

A forthcoming Rome meeting of bishops must come to grips with the challenge

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Jesuit's wake-up call on church sex abuse

Pope Francis arrives for the weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican on Dec. 12. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP)

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Father Federico Lombardi's call for concerted attention to the challenge of clerical sex abuse is the most thorough attempt yet by the Vatican to come to grips with the crisis.

Father Lombardi is the former director of Vatican Radio and was Vatican spokesman during the pontificate of Benedict XVI and in the early years under the current pope.

If the problem is not fully confronted in all its aspects, the church will continue to find itself facing one crisis after another, he wrote in the respected Jesuit La Civilta Cattolica periodical published in Rome.

Furthermore, the credibility of all priests will remain seriously impaired, he said.

Father Lombardi said that if there was not an adequate response, damage would continue to be done to the church's mission to proclaim the Gospel as well as to its educational work for children and young people.

The latter, in relation to education, had for centuries has been one of the most beautiful and precious aspects of the church's service for humanity, Father Lombardi stressed.

His comments came ahead of a February meeting in Rome called by Pope Francis of presidents of bishops' conferences around the world to discuss the protection of minors. 

In his article, Father Lombardi catalogues efforts by the Vatican to tackle abuse, especially during Pope Benedict's time but also since Pope Francis became bishop of Rome.

Father Lombardi lamented that "speaking of sexual abuse by members of the clergy is painful and unpleasant."

But he noted that "sometimes, even in church circles, one hears that it is time to change the subject, that it is not right to give too much weight to this theme, for it is becoming oppressive and overblown. But that would be the wrong road to take."

Father Lombardi lists the crises in the church, especially among the hierarchy, as well as the findings of probes around the world that have made the subject a matter of urgent significance.

"Sometimes, there is the illusion that this problem is mainly 'Western' or 'American' or 'Anglophone'," he said. "With unbelievable naïveté people think that this is only a marginal problem in their own country. In reality, to the careful eye, its presence cannot be missed; it is sometimes latent but always capable of exploding dramatically in the future. There is a need to look reality in the face. In this, more information will be of great help."

Inquiries in many places such as Ireland and Australia, as well as the findings of Grand Juries in the United States, are only the best known. They have been echoed in internal processes and outcomes of the church in Chile, France and most notably surrounding the notorious Marcial Marciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and close confidant of Pope St. John Paul II.

Father Lombardi sees the coming extraordinary meeting of the leaders of bishops' conferences, religious congregations and lay experts as an opportunity to universalize hard-learned lessons to address the crisis.

The experience of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, changes in the training of church workers in safeguarding children and the development of stringent protocols will receive wider exposure, Father Lombardi believes.

"If in some countries much has been done, drastically reducing the number of cases of abuse and setting out efficacious programs of prevention and formation, we need to recognize that in many other countries, little, if anything, has been done," Father Lombardi wrote.

"The causes of this are many, but the need to act decisively in these cases is enormous.

"The episcopal conferences, the bishops and the religious superiors must feel themselves responsible and know that they must give an account of this responsibility before God, the church and society."

Father Lombardi holds that the focus of this extraordinary gathering goes to the heart of the reform of the church that Pope Francis is seeking to foster.

"Pope Francis no longer speaks simply of 'sexual abuse' but of 'abuses of sex, power and conscience'," Lombardi noted.

"He reads the entire question of sexual abuse in a wider systematic context of relations that exist within the ecclesial community and their corruption, when authority is lived as power and not as service.

"The ecclesial vision that guides Francis is the one we all recognize by now: the pilgrim people of God guided by the Spirit; a synodal journey where all the faithful are co-responsible and every form of clericalism needs to be fought decisively.

"Overcoming the crisis brought to light strikingly by the phenomenon of abuse becomes then a crucial test of the true reform of the church, which should not be superficial but reach deeply to renew and purify relations and behavior according to the Gospel"

*To subscribe to the English edition of La Civilta Cattolica click here.

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