Pope Francis hands out 21 ‘reflection points’ at Vatican summit but survivors groups say church still has a long way to go
Activists for survivors of clerical sexual abuse have criticised a list of proposals laid out by Pope Francis to address paedophilia within the Catholic church on the first day of an unprecedented summit at the Vatican.
“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” the pope told an audience of bishops and cardinals in a Vatican auditorium, asking them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice”.
The scandal of multiple, wide-ranging abuse and coverup allegations has dealt a severe blow to the reputation of the Catholic church in the United States, Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere in recent years. On Thursday, in an apparent attempt to stave off criticism that his summit would change little, the pope said the victims deserved “concrete and efficient measures” and not mere condemnations.
A list of 21 “reflection points” written by the pope was handed out. The first proposal was for a “practical handbook” to be given to dioceses indicating the steps authorities must take at key moments when a case of alleged abuse emerges. Another advised dioceses to deploy “trained and expert people” to listen to the cases of alleged victims.
“There was not a single thing about what they are going to do about bishops who cover up sex crimes,” said Peter Isley, spokesperson for Ending Clergy Abuse, an organisation that brings together activists from different countries.
“I don’t know why a practical handbook is number one – there’s all this vagueness – listening structures and criteria. But what counts is that zero-tolerance should be written into church law. If a priest has been determined [to have committed child abuse], they should be removed from ministry. And if bishops have covered things up, they must be removed too.”
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sexual abuse investigator, said during a press briefing on Thursday that the 21 points were a “roadmap for our discussion” on clerical sexual abuse and future development of law. “It’s an understatement to say that they have to be taken seriously,” he said.
Father Hans Zollner, a member of the summit’s organising committee, said the church needed to take responsibility and that the points were “a call to common action”.
The pope and the participants watched videotaped testimony from victims of the trauma of their abuse and the cruel indifference shown to them by bishops and religious superiors. One woman from Africa told the summit that the priest who began raping her at age 15 forced her to have three abortions, and beat her when she refused him sex. A survivor from Chile told the bishops and religious superiors they had inflicted even more pain on victims by discrediting them and protecting the priests who abused.
Bernadette Howell, another activist with Ending Clergy Abuse, said the document handed out on Thursday reflected just how far the church still has to go to deal with a problem that was publicly exposed decades ago. “They are only now beginning to reflect on this global crisis,” said Howell. “They have been deaf for so long and asleep to our voices and pleas to be heard.”
She highlighted point 18, which calls for the creation of “norms governing the transfer of a seminarian or religious aspirant from one seminary to another; as well as a priest or religious from one diocese or congregation to another”.
Howell said: “Regarding this point … so until now predator priests move around freely with no norms of practice? And there is nothing on zero tolerance.”
Howell argued that until the church stops “protecting its own”, little will change. She said the defrocking of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was found guilty of sexually abusing minors days before the summit, was simply a “PR stunt”.
“They already knew about it and had been covering up – that’s what we really want – for this to stop.”