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The Pope with the Bishops during the Synod The Pope with the Bishops during the Synod  (Vatican Media)

Protection of minors in the Church: Not Year Zero

On the eve of the "Protection of Minors in the Church" Meeting, we retrace the steps already taken by the Popes, the Vatican and local Churches, in the struggle to protect minors from clerical sex abuse.

By Fabio Colagrande

The "Protection of Minors in the Church" Meeting, to be held in the Vatican from 21 to 24 February, is the first to involve all the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences and those responsible for religious orders worldwide. This meeting of Church pastors has unprecedented “synodal” characteristics and is the first to address the issue of abuse from a Gospel perspective. The Meeting also shows how, in the present historical context, the fight against the scourge of abuse committed by members of the clergy, is a priority for Pope Francis. Listening to victims, raising awareness, increasing knowledge, developing new norms and procedures, sharing good practices: these are some of the objectives of the Meeting.

A stage in a long journey

However, the Meeting is not the first step taken in this direction by the Holy See, or by Episcopal Conferences. It is an historic stage in a journey undertaken by the Catholic Church for over thirty years, in countries like Canada, the United States, Ireland and Australia, and for the past ten years in Europe. This journey will continue after the Vatican Meeting. The renewal of canonical norms for cases of abuse of minors by members of the clergy, began in the Vatican eighteen years ago. Over the last twenty years, the Popes have dedicated countless gestures, speeches and documents to this painful subject. The publication of norms and protocols has not always produced the change of mentality necessary to combat abuse. But on the eve of this Meeting, called for by the Pope, we certainly cannot speak of "Year Zero" in the Church's commitment to the protection of minors. 

First steps: Canada, USA, Ireland and Australia

In 1987, the Canadian Bishops’ Conferences became one of the first in the world to issue directives regarding sexual violence against minors in the context of the Church. Reports of abuse against minors by members of the clergy had shaken public opinion. In 1989, the Church in Canada set up an ad hoc committee, which published the document "From suffering to hope", in 1992. The document contains 50 "Recommendations" addressed to Catholics, Bishops and those responsible for training priests.

The United States Bishops’ Conference first officially dealt with sexual abuse against minors by members of the clergy, during its Assembly of June 1992. That was when it established "Five Principles". These include the fact that, "if the accusation is supported by sufficient evidence", the alleged offender must be “promptly relieved of his ministerial duties" and be referred to “suitable judgment” and “medical intervention". Despite this document, accusations of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy continued to increase, culminating in the historic investigation by the Boston Globe newspaper. In April 2002, Pope St John Paul II called the American Cardinals to Rome.

In 1994, the Church in Ireland established the Irish Catholic Bishops' Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious, which issued its first Report in December of the following year. Meanwhile, the Church in Australia published one of the first protocols in the world on how to deal with cases of child sex abuse committed by members of the clergy at the diocesan level. In December 1996, the document "Towards Healing", was approved for all Australian dioceses and became operational in March 1997.

New canonical norms: "delicta graviora" abuses

Starting in the 21st century, the Holy See, thanks especially to the efforts of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, began and completed a profound renewal of canonical norms for intervening in cases of abuse. These included updating penalties, procedures, and competences. In 2001, the Motu Proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela”, of Pope St John Paul II, included the crime of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy among the so-called "most serious crimes", which would be judged by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI had the same Congregation publish the new "Norms concerning the most serious crimes" that accelerated procedures by introducing the "extrajudicial decree", extending the statute of limitations from ten to twenty years, and including the crime of "pedophile pornography". The Church in Germany published its first "Guidelines" on the subject in 2002. But in 2010, the case of the Jesuit Canisius College in Berlin prompted the German Bishops’ Conference to renew the guidelines and to increase collaboration with the authorities.

Ireland: the Ryan and Murphy Reports

In 2009 in Ireland, after years of work by special government commissions, the Ryan Report on Abuse in the School System, and the Murphy Report on Child Abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin, were published. The reports highlighted the shortcomings with which the Church had handled cases of abuse, and prompted Pope Benedict XVI to summon the Irish bishops to Rome. In March 2010, the Pope published a "Pastoral Letter" addressed to all Catholics of Ireland. In the letter, he asked for truly evangelical, just and effective measures to be taken in response to this betrayal of trust, and he arranged an Apostolic Visitation to the country, from November 2010 to March 2012. Starting in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI began meeting regularly with victims of abuse during his apostolic journeys to the USA, Australia, Great Britain, Malta and Germany. Pope Francis has continued to do the same, including frequent private meetings at his residence in Santa Marta.

Guidelines for Episcopal Conferences

Another important step in this process was the publication in May 2011, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of a Circular Letter requesting all Episcopal Conferences to draw up "Guidelines" for dealing with cases of abuse, assisting victims, and providing guidance towards harmonizing the action of dioceses of the same region. The text states that responsibility for dealing with crimes of sexual abuse by clerics lies primarily with the diocesan Bishop.

The Gregorian Symposium

In order to help Episcopal Conferences and Religious Congregations adequately prepare the "Guidelines", the Holy See encouraged the organization of an International Symposium "Towards Healing and Renewal" which took place at the Pontifical Gregorian University in February 2012. The Symposium had the same international aim as that of the upcoming Meeting of February 2019, insofar as it involved representatives of 110 Episcopal Conferences and Superiors of 35 religious Institutes. The Symposium concluded with the announcement of the creation of a Center for the Protection of Minors, directed by Fr. Hans Zollner SJ, at the Gregorian University, in order to train specialized personnel in abuse prevention.

The new Pontifical Commission

The first important step in preventing and combating abuse under the pontificate of Pope Francis was the establishment of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in December 2013. Part of the Commission’s work includes establishing a model for the "Guidelines", organizing courses for newly appointed Bishops, and preparing a Day of Prayer for victims of abuse.

Pope Francis also introduced canonical innovations, regulations and procedures in the field of abuse. The first was in June 2016, with the Motu Proprio "As a loving mother". This regards the issue of accountability of ecclesiastical authorities. It calls for the removal from office of Bishops considered 'negligent' in their management of sexual abuse of minors, according to established canonical procedures.

In November 2014, the Pope established a College within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to examine ecclesiastical appeals for judgments on the subject of "most serious crimes", and entrusted it to Archbishop Charles Scicluna. The objective being to ensure a more rapid examination of cases of abuse of minors.

In order to underline how the Church's commitment to the protection of minors moves in a perspective that is not only internal but also of collaboration with the whole of society, Pope Francis supported and promoted the International Congress, “Child Dignity in the Digital World”, organized at the Pontifical Gregorian University in October 2017. 

Combatting abuse and clericalism

During his Apostolic Journey to Chile, in January 2018, Pope Francis had to face the scandal of divisions created in the local Church by the case of Fr. Fernando Karadima, found guilty of abuse by the Holy See in 2011. After an investigation entrusted to Archbishop Scicluna in February, the Pope wrote to the Chilean bishops in April recognizing "serious errors of assessment and perception of the situation for lack of true information”. Then, in May, he summoned all the Chilean Bishops to Rome for a meeting that ended with all of them offering their resignations to the Pope. Only a few were accepted.  

This context generated the most recent pastoral documents dedicated to the subject by Pope Francis. In his "Letter to the People of God on the Road to Chile" of May 2018, the Pope thanks victims of abuse for their courage and calls for the commitment of all the People of God to combat the clericalism at the root of the abuse. Again, in his "Letter to the People of God" of August 2018, Pope Francis connects sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience: “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism”. During his trip to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, in August 2018, Pope Francis spoke of the failure of Church authorities in dealing adequately with “these repugnant crimes" which "rightly arouse indignation and remain a cause of suffering and shame for the Catholic community".

18 February 2019, 10:37