By Festus Tarawalie
Sr. Veronica, who is also the current Superior General of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, based her presentation on the theme: “Openness to the World as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission".
Commenting on the theme, she said the “Clerical sex abuse is a crisis that has reduced the credibility of the Church when transparency should be the hallmark of mission as followers of Jesus Christ”.
In the face of this disturbing crisis, she continued, the Church must do everything “to protect its young and vulnerable members.” The focus, she said, should not to be on “fear or disgrace but rather on the Church’s mission to serve with integrity and justice”.
She proposed a strong “zero tolerance” policy with regard to sexual abuse.
Dispelling the denial of abuse in Africa and Asia
Sr. Veronica, who has lived in Europe for many years and studied in the US went on to dispel the view held by many Africans and Asians that issues regarding abuse are only limited to Europe and other western countries. She acknowledged that it is a huge problem in the West but that abuses also occur in the other continents. She said she worked throughout Nigeria, her country of origin, in the area of sexuality education for nine years and heard the stories and counselled many people, a period during which she realized how serious the issues were and still are. Most of the abuses happened outside the Church but she recalled how in the early 90s a priest told her there were sexual abuses in the convents and formations houses and that as the then president of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious, the priest asked her to do something to address the issue. Sr. veronica also shared the experience of her meeting with a dying old man who was abused as a teenager by a priest in his school and a thirteen year-old girl who met her priest attacker 25 years later and he did not recognise her.
Transparency in addressing the abuse crisis
Saturday’s session was dedicated to the general theme of “Transparency”. The question today, she said, is more about “how to address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors more directly, transparently and courageously as a Church”.
Let us not “hide such events anymore because of fear of making mistakes”. All offenders found guilty, regardless of their status, should be given the same penalty for the abuse of minors and seek healing for the victims, she said. “The first step towards true transparency is to admit wrongdoing and then to publish what has been done since the time of Pope John Paul II to heal the situation”, she added.
She also called for the building of more effective and efficient processes for the safeguarding of Minors, including the compilation of comprehensive safeguarding policies and guidelines in every diocese.
She said there must be a better handling of cases through “face-to-face, transparent and courageous conversations with both victims and offenders, as well as investigating groups”.
The Church, she continued, must be proactive in fighting abuse and not downplay or ignore it in some countries in Asia and Africa that have huge issues of poverty, illness, war and violence.
Strategic way forward
Sr. Veronica said the Church should continue to listen to victims and help them in the healing process. It is becoming evident, she said, that victims that were listened to and helped psychologically and spiritually were healed”.
“Can we train enough sensitive and compassionate people to offer this service in all countries including those places struggling to put food on the table?” she asked.
The Church, she said, must look for ways to better use social media to “educate people on the whole area of sexuality and human relationships”, including how to address issues of prostitution and human trafficking.
She also called for a clear and balanced education and training about sexuality and boundaries in the seminaries and formation houses; as well as in the ongoing formation of priests, religious men and women and bishops. In all of these initiatives, she noted, the laity and religious have a role to play.
She said each of the delegates present has a responsibility to preach the good news to the poor, the vulnerable, protecting especially defenseless children, seeking justice for victims of abuse and taking steps to prevent abuse from recurring.
She concluded by commending Pope Francis for the leadership he is providing in tackling the issue.
“Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing this opportunity for us to check and see where we have acted strangely, ignorantly, secretly and complacently. I believe we will change, with great determination, our total approach to reporting abuse, to supporting the victims, to getting the right people to mentor and give support to victims and, above all, to doing what we can to protect minors and vulnerable adults from any form of abuse”.
She also thanked the Pope for inviting the superiors of women religious congregations to the meeting, saying: “Women have acquired a lot of useful experience to offer in this field and have already done much to support victims - there are women who are also offenders - and also to work creatively on their own use of power and authority”.
For more information on the Meeting on "The Protection of Minors in the Church" and on Sister Openhibo's presentation www.pbc2019.org