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Dr. Myriam Wijlens, Professor in canon law at the University of Erfurt, and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors Dr. Myriam Wijlens, Professor in canon law at the University of Erfurt, and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors 

Protection of minors: A balance is needed

As many churches in different countries prepare to mark a Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse, an interview with Dr Myriam Wijlens, a professor in canon law and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, highlights the ongoing work of the Church to ensure the safety and the protection and dignity of all.

By Gudrun Sailer

On the first Friday of Lent dozens of local churches will gather together in prayer for victims and survivors of abuse, for their families and their communities.

In late 2016, Pope Francis wrote to bishops’ conferences around the world asking they choose an appropriate moment during the liturgical year to observe an annual national Day of Prayer for Victims and Survivors of Abuse with the community of faithful.

Over the past four years many Bishops Conferences – and individual diocese –  have taken steps to enact the proposal, with Cathedrals and parishes in Ireland choosing Friday 19 February to light Candles of Atonement to mark the Day of Prayer as has the Church in Scotland and in Poland who will also hold special liturgies.

Working hand in hand with the Pope on this issue is the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Its mandate is to work closely with victims/survivors in the development of safeguarding policies and practices and to promote spiritual and pastoral care and healing. The Commission highlights that prayer is a central part of the healing process, and public prayer is an important way of raising consciousness in the Church.

Dr. Myriam Wijlens, a Dutch professor of canon law at the University of Erfurt and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke to Vatican Radio’s Gudrun Sailer about the work undertaken by the Church in recent years to ensure the safety of all and to protect the dignity of all persons.

It’s been almost two years since Pope Francis convoked an unprecedented meeting with presidents of episcopal conferences on the abuse of minors. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of minors has recently published the results of a seminar entitled Promoting and Protecting the Dignity of Persons in Allegations of Abuse of Minors and Vulnerable Adults: Balancing Confidentiality, Transparency and Accountability. What was the context of this seminar?

The year 2001 marks the point where the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church began to give expression to an increased awareness that the subject of abuse of minors needed a radically different approach. It marked a change in attitude and perspective: not the protection of the reputation of the Church, but the wellbeing and protection of minors must be the paramount interest. The Church is to be a safe place for all to gather. The dignity of the human person does not allow for it to be compromised. Looking back over the past twenty years we can see that it has not only been a learning process, but indeed it has been an ongoing learning process for all concerned. It requires careful reflections and thus an exchange of expertise and thoughts.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has a study group entitled “Safeguarding Guidelines and Norms”. After having listened carefully to different Dicasteries of the Holy See, the February 2019 conference of Pope Francis with presidents of episcopal conferences from around the world, and the reports arising from different countries, the working group proposed together with the working group “education and formation” to convoke a seminar on “Balancing Confidentiality, Transparency and Accountability”. Hence, the seminar was about an appropriate “balancing” of these three aspects with regard to the victims / survivors and their relatives, the accused, the specific community in which the abuse occurred and the wider community both ecclesial and secular. The key element of finding that balance is to be found in the “protection and promotion of the dignity of every human person”. The seminar addressed two major subjects: the sacrament of reconciliation including the seal of confession and the transparency and accountability in procedural questions.

What was the purpose of the seminar and who participated?

The three-day seminar was held in December 2019 and it had a moderate purpose: to clarify and sharpen the questions, identify those areas and subjects that are in need of further research and propose possible ways and steps forward to respond to them.

We wanted to understand the issues better and thus listen and learn from each other and see to the topics from different perspective. The participation of people with very different backgrounds turned out to be extremely enriching and in a way unique. Among the thirty-seven participants were leadership and staff members from the Roman Curia, professors specializing in psychiatry, international law, the rights of children and moral theology as well as in canon law both of the Latin and of the Eastern Churches. Also the voices of the local churches could be heard: bishops, as well as civil and canon lawyers from the dioceses were present. Four women with expertise in abuse participated. Among the speakers were Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Archbishops Charles Scicluna, as well as e.g. the Professors Damian Astigueta SJ, Giacomo Incittti, Vimal Tirimanna CSsR, and John Beal. Nine presentations of the seminar are now published in English, Italian and Spanish.

Here a link to the publication can be inserted: https://www.tutelaminorum.org/balancing-confidentiality-transparency-and-accountability/

You mentioned the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Seal of Confession? Can you elaborate on these issues?

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is of utmost relevance for the spiritual life of the faithful. Penitents must have the assurance that their sins confessed will not be revealed to a third party. Yet, there is also a concern that children who are sexually abused do get the help they need and that further abuse is prevented. Because of the safety of children some countries have introduced mandatory reporting to state authorities while no longer respecting the seal of confession. Often the states do not focus on clerics as perpetrators, but they have a scenario in mind that concerns domestic violence and abuse. The Church like the states acknowledges the high relevance of the safety of children, but insists at the same time on respect for the seal of confession based on its theological notion of the sacrament and the necessity flowing from it to secure and guarantee absolute confidentiality for the penitents. Our Seminar clearly confirmed the inviolability of the Seal of Confession. It must be protected at all times. Yet, some questions arise: When is a conversation between a priest and a person a confession and not merely e.g. a matter of spiritual direction? How important is it that the language used refers to the seal of confession and not to the seal of the confessional, meaning the place where the confession occurs? What is actually covered by the Seal of Confession? Do sins committed by a third party, but reported by someone else fall under the Seal of Confession? A confession requires true contrition: how can a confessor establish this? Is it theologically possible to withhold absolution in certain cases? Which possibilities do confessors have to assist victims and perpetrators to find help while respecting the seal of confession? What training would confessors need in this regard? In our seminar we attended to the history, theology and canonical aspects to respect the integrity of the seal but to seek clarity in its meaning, extend and practical application.

The Seminar also addressed Accountability and Transparency. What did you discuss?

An important question in assuring that justice is administered concerns the right to information for victims / survivors, accused and the community as such. We addressed the so-called Pontifical Secret. A few days after the Seminar pope Francis already made some helpful changes in this regard in particular with regard to the interaction with state authorities.

We asked: What do the notions of confidentiality, transparency and accountability mean and how do they relate to each other? What does transparency mean in light of making things “public” or “providing information”? And then: to whom should what information be made public? What does accountability mean, not only in relation to those who abused or handled the allegation of abuse, but also within the penal process itself? What is the relevance for the community to be informed and how does appropriate information contribute to a sense of justice and even to prevention of abuse?

The seminar was aware that different aspects are to be taken into consideration at the same time: all have a right to defend and vindicate their rights. In turn this implies that the Church has an obligation that these rights can be exercised by way of good procedures and solid argumentations which guarantees fair trials leading to the administration of justice. The latter is not only important for the victim and the accused but also for the entire community. It should know that people are held accountable for their actions, that the decision is well argued and that the outcome of a case constitutes indeed justice which reflects fairness as well. This, however, is easier said than done.

We have to recall: victims have a right to privacy and confidentiality. This is important otherwise they will not report or be victimized a second time. All have to know that “those concerned” have access to relevant information. But who exactly are «those concerned»? This affects in particular victims who, under the current law, are given hardly any information about the process. Indeed the seminar addressed the question: which rights and duties do victims have and how can the exercise of their rights be envisioned in the penal process? What possible changes in the penal procedures seem to be necessary? What needs and indeed what can be improved? These questions obtain particular relevance when abuse is understood as a violation of the dignity of a person.

We also attended to the accused who must be assured of a good and secure way to defend their right and reputation. This requires not only that one has an advocate, but also that advocates have access to jurisprudence, which is currently not the case. All must be confident that there is fairness in the administration of justice: similar cases are judged in similar ways and lead to similar penalties. So, how can jurisprudence be made accessible while the protection of privacy of those concerned is respected? How does one balance confidentiality and transparency here? The seminar asked: What can the Church learn from judges who face similar challenges in the penal trials heard in state courts?

What was in your view the outcome of the Seminar?

The purpose of the seminar was not to provide final answers. Rather, it was to clarify and sharpen the questions, identify those areas and subjects that were in need of further research and propose possible ways and steps forward to respond to them, for example, by recommending further research. As mentioned pope Francis already made changes with regard to the Pontifical Secret.

The Seminar confirmed the inviolability of the Seal of Confession, but awareness grew that there is a need for better and ongoing education of confessors with regard to e.g. distinguishing the forum internum and externum and for providing victims with information where and how to get help and healing. Such education would also affect the whole area of spiritual abuse.

There is a need to further study balancing transparency and the provision of information in canonical processes with regard to rights of victims; rights of defense of accused; and the right of the faithful. There was a need expressed to investigate how in different states around the world the rights of victims unfold in penal cases, e.g. by providing a procurator or other assistant. What can the church learn from those provisions? These and other issues are to be studied in particular from the perspective of “promoting and protecting the dignity of persons” as that will allow the church to act with integrity. Without integrity the missionary task of the church cannot be exercised credibly and successfully.

Listen to the full interview with Prof Myriam Wijlens
18 February 2021, 18:04