Hope for healing and policies for prevention

Revelations of clerical sexual abuse have ravaged the Church for decades. From the conviction of Gilbert Gauthe in 1985 to the most recent allegations in the United States, Chile, Germany, Argentina, and Australia, the handling and cover-up of clerical abuse cases has induced many of the faithful to lose trust in Church leadership. This week, the Vatican worked to restore this trust.

The highly anticipated four-day summit on the sexual abuse crisis came to a close with a celebration of Mass on Sunday, February 24. 114 bishops and cardinals from around the world travelled to the Vatican for the landmark meeting focused on responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Testimonies from victims were at the core of the summit, including the testimony of an African woman who was forced to have three abortions by a priest who started raping her when she was 15 years old.

Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian nun and the leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, powerfully renounced the culture of silence within the clerical Church. “Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed. This storm will not pass. Our credibility as a Church is at stake,” Sr. Openibo said.

She also criticized the failure of the bishops to defrock aging priests convicted of sexual abuse out of fear of hurting them or sullying their reputations, lamenting, “But my heart bleeds for many of the victims who live with the misplaced shame and guilt of repeated violations for years.” Sr. Openibo spoke out against the misconception that clerical sexual abuse is not an issue in Africa and Asia by sharing her personal experiences of counseling victims.

A significant admission on the third day of the summit came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, who disclosed that documents related to clerical sexual abuse had been destroyed or not created at all. This failure of accountability prompted Cardinal Marx to call for changes to the Vatican’s legal code regarding secrecy.

Pope Francis issued 21 proposals to reform the Church’s methods of investigation and prevention of clerical abuse. The proposals include informing civil and higher ecclesiastical authorities of suspected abuse, establishing specific protocols for handling allegations against bishops, and providing the necessary support for the complete recovery of victims.

Pope Francis was criticized by victims of abuse for failing to propose specific changes to the Church’s policy on addressing clerical abuse. Furthermore, he did not mention a zero-tolerance policy, which would require any priest convicted of abuse to be defrocked. It is unclear what the result of the summit will be, though Pope Francis has mentioned the creation of new rules to prevent abuse and properly handle it when it occurs.

As this is the first-ever Vatican summit on handling sex abuse, there is certainly reason to be hopeful for real change in how the Church prevents and addresses abuse. However, there is also reason for the faithful to be frustrated by sluggishness of the leadership’s response to abuse allegations, and the lack of a commitment to a zero-tolerance policy.

One pervasive theme of the conference was the idea that clerical abuse and bureaucratic cover-up are equally abhorrent, and that all of the Church has great need for penance and purification. St. John of the Cross wrote, “No matter how much individuals do through their own efforts, they cannot actively purify themselves enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love. God must take over and purge them in that fire that is dark for them.”

Only through the grace of God can the reforms initiated as a result of this summit come to fruition. When we endure spiritual damage due to the weakness of the human Church, we can find hope and guidance in the life and words of those who have lived through similar corruption in the Church, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. In our frustration and sorrow at the state of the human Church on Earth, hope and prayer are our greatest weapons.

Above all, we can trust that God is with us, even when we doubt the virtue of those who should serve as examples for conduct and spiritual fathers for the faithful.

As St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”

Maria Keller is a freshman majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies. She likes raccoons, the smell of old books, and the concept of living in a cottage in Ireland. Contact her at mkeller7@nd.edu.