By Linda Bordoni
In a message to religious leaders, scholars and experts from various fields participating in the international Symposium “Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse”, Pope Francis expressed his support and hope for the eradication what he described as “a profound evil.”
The three-day symposium is a landmark event organized by Harvard University in partnership with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Catholic University of America.
It kicked-off on April 8th, the day organizers hope will soon become the World Day of Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, Healing and Justice.
In his message to participants, the Pope expressed his trust that “by bringing together Religious Leaders, Scholars, and experts from various fields in order to share research, clinical and pastoral experiences and best practices, the Symposium will contribute to a greater awareness of the gravity and extent of child sexual abuse and promote more effective cooperation at every level of society in eradicating this profound evil.”
Organizers explain the event is a first-of-a-kind as it stems from the realization that the best way to tackle child sexual abuse prevention and healing is through an active and ongoing synergy between public health care professionals and faith-based leaders and communities.
That’s why scholars, public health and mental health care professionals, child abuse prevention experts, and religious leaders of diverse faith traditions are sharing experience and resources as the best possible way to identify strategies to prevent child sexual abuse and foster healing for survivors of abuse in their communities.
Men and women of different backgrounds and histories have thus been asked to tell their stories, encouraging others to engage with different realities in the firm commitment that all vulnerable people have a right to be protected and that individuals and societies can only benefit from a holistic approach that takes physical, psychological and spiritual needs into due consideration.
Voices from across the spectrum
Introducing the first session was Jennifer Wortham, Dr.PH, the Executive Director for the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Harvard University, who is universally credited with being the motor at the heart of the event.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors was the next in line to take to the floor, followed by long-time child protection advocate Queen Silvia of Sweden, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rev Dr Denis Mukwege and Rev. Keishi Miyamoto.
The Catholic Church’s commitment towards survivors
Bringing the voice of the Catholic Church, Cardinal O’Malley reflected on the moral and legal obligation the Church has to provide protection and care for the people it serves, “especially minors, young people, vulnerable adults.”
“In all religious, civic and social groups, the people we serve rightfully expect that protection,” he said, noting that “In some cases, their trust was betrayed by those who carry the sacred responsibility of caring for their souls.”
“In all circumstances, the betrayal of sexual abuse was a terrible and devastating violation of human dignity,” he said.
In line and in continuation of the commitment made by the Church as it continues in its work and journey to eradicate clerical sexual abuse, the Cardinal reiterated that “within our families and social groups, the sins and crimes of sexual abuse cannot be held in secret and in shame. We must be vigilant in supporting survivors and their loved ones in the journey towards healing. “
Finally, he expressed his desire to “acknowledge and thank all the victim-survivors who continue to come forward to share their stories: It's because of your courage that the protection of children, youth and vulnerable adults and victim-assistance programs are becoming central components in all facets of our lives. But as the program for this symposium makes clear, there is much work yet to be done.”
Child abuse on the rise in a digital world
Queen Silvia of Sweden, founder of the World Childhood Foundation, spoke about how the issue of child sexual abuse has finally been brought to light, noting that when she decided to take action with the Foundation 20 years ago, “child sexual abuse was hardly on the public agenda: it was a problem that no one wanted to speak about and no one wanted to see its victims.
Pointing out that although giant steps been taken in awareness and prevention, “technology and connectivity have added new forms of online abuse” and the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
She concluded observing that “Silence protects no one but the perpetrator,” and that is why we must break this silence to relieve the child from a burden of shame that was never his or hers to carry.
“Even more importantly we must listen to the children who find the courage to speak up, and trust them,” she said.
The role of faith leaders in building the future
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Rev Dr Denis Mutwege focussed his speech on the role the religious community plays in ensuring the protection of children and ensuring that survivors be given the resources they need to build their lives in the future.
The Congolese Reverend gave a moving account of his personal experience as a physician and obstetrician in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo where rape was widely used as a weapon of war.
He spoke of his work at the Maternity Hospital in the town of Panzi where most patients had been raped by fighters: “most of them were young girls, but there were also elderly women and many children, some of them only a few months old.”
The pain and horror he and his staff witnessed were such, he said that only prayers and the faith of all those involved allowed them to survive and keep going.
“I have witnessed the importance of faith, spirituality and hope in the context of the most devastating violence in the world,” Rev Dr Mutwege said, “And we have realized that physical healing was not enough to help the survivors recover from their wounds.”
Holistic model of care
Dr Mutwege continues to work for healing and peace in his nation on different levels.
“We have developed a four-pillar holistic model of care that combines medical treatment with psychosocial support and access to legal services and activities.”
He is deeply convinced that “Leaders of all faiths have an important role to play in ending rape as a weapon of war and curbing the sexual abuse of children, in particular.”
At the local level, he explained, we work with religious leaders and village leaders to ensure that they understand the aspects of gender equality and the rights of women and children. These leaders, he said, have an important role in educating communities and this also serves to abolish stigma and to break the cycle of violence at a national level.
At the national level he is working with civil society organizations and government entities on a variety of initiatives designed to build support networks for survivors of sexual violence, provide reparations, and help build lasting peace for the nation.
But acknowledging there is still a long way to go to build lasting peace in the DRC, Dr Mutwege said he is advocating at an international level for transitional justice mechanisms to be implemented as recommended by the UN Mapping Report, so perpetrators of past and present crimes are brought to justice.
Rape: a weapon of war in many parts of the world
Unfortunately, Dr Mutwege said, “rape is used as a weapon of war in many parts of the world.”
“Through my advocacy efforts to end this war strategy I have had the opportunity to meet with Muslim, Christian, Jewish survivors. As members of the faith community we have an important role to play and a responsibility to ensure that survivors do not feel shame or stigma for the abuse they have suffered,” he said.
“Rather than being ostracised, these survivors should feel supported and respected. Rather than feeling powerless, they should have the power to change things. Rather than being silenced, they should have the opportunity to break their silence and speak.”
On the Symposium website you are invited to hear the voices of survivors of child sexual abuse and follow upcoming Symposium presentations that include: “Challenges and Opportunities for Preventing Child Sexual Abuse; “Managing Urgent and Emerging Challenges Related to Digital Safety and the Global Pandemic; “The Role of Faith and Faith Leaders in Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse”; “The Importance of Faith Leaders in Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse.”
All presentations can be viewed by the public who is also invited to join discussion following registration. Click here for info.