Indian theologian Virginia Saldanha (center) takes part in a protest by victims of sexual abuse and members of Ending Clergy Abuse at a papal summit on the sex abuse crisis in Rome on Feb. 23, 2019. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
Indian bishops have pledged to follow a policy of zero tolerance toward sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The 192 bishops at the biennial gathering of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in Bengaluru asserted that they will not tolerate any kind of sexual abuse.
They said they will take necessary disciplinary action against offenders irrespective of their standing in the Church, sending a clear message to everyone that they will not be spared if they are found to have offended.
Bishops stressed the need to deal with abuse victims with compassion and care and to instill confidence in them to face the challenges to lead a new life.
The prelates agreed to “constitute an appropriate mechanism with necessary infrastructure and time-bound procedures to redress cases of sexual abuse,” leading to immediate relief for survivors who otherwise face discrimination and humiliation from society.
They also agreed not to shield any instance of abuse from prosecution by civil authorities.
Bishops agreed to widely circulate the Indian bishops' guidelines on dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. They were released in 2017 after being drawn up by the women’s council of the CBCI.
“The bishops framed separate guidelines to deal with clergy sex abuse in 2015. However, the bishops failed to circulate them among priests and the laity, leading many to believe that the Indian Church has not taken sex abuse seriously,” a priest told UCA News on condition of anonymity on Feb. 18.
Holy Spirit Sister Julie George, a human rights lawyer, welcomed the initiative taken by the bishops to deal with sex abuse cases with zero tolerance.
“It is a good decision that will augur well for the Church as a whole,” the nun told UCA News on Feb. 18.
“In most cases the laity were unaware of the reporting protocols in the event of sex abuse by clergy or otherwise in the Church as they were not educated properly about the bishops’ guidelines to deal with such issues.
“The bishops will have to first educate the laity, clergy and others associated with the Church about the guidelines and then set up a mechanism to report and deal with them effectively.
“There are instances of survivors not reporting such cases to anyone for fear of a backlash from the Church and civil society. The bishops’ assurance will help them come forward and report cases fearlessly.”
However, Virginia Saldanha, a lay theologian, is skeptical about the Indian bishops’ pledge of zero tolerance.
“As I have personally handled many cases of sex abuse within the Church, I know nobody got justice from the church leadership,” Saldanha told UCA News on Feb. 18. “What the clergy has done is to silence the survivors.”
She added that “if the bishops are really serious about dealing with this serious issue, they should include knowledgeable laypeople to deal with such issues, failing which nothing will come out from this announcement.”
Father Cyril Victor Joseph, the head of Bangalore Archdiocese's media commission, said the bishops are serious and very clear about sex abuse cases.
“The Catholic Church will not tolerate any kind of sex abuse and the perpetrators will have to face the law of the land,” Father Joseph told UCA News.
The CBCI meeting from Feb. 13-19 has the main theme of "Dialogue: The Path to Truth and Charity."
Cardinal Oswald Gracias has been re-elected as president of the CBCI for another two years. Also re-elected were vice-presidents Archbishop Mar George Njaralakatt and Bishop Joshua Ignathios. Archbishop Felix Machado was elected as secretary general.