Professor Myriam Wijlens speaking at the Warsaw conference (EpiskopatNews) Professor Myriam Wijlens speaking at the Warsaw conference (EpiskopatNews) 

Prof. Wijlens: Church learning to listen to abuse survivors

As a safeguarding conference wraps up in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Prof. Myriam Wijlens expresses hope that the Church is learning to listen to survivors of clerical sexual abuse, but says the next step is for justice to be administered.

By Devin Watkins

The Warsaw conference concluded its work on Wednesday, with Church leaders in Central and Eastern Europe returning to their dioceses to continue efforts to root out sexual abuse by members of the clergy.

Taking place under the theme, “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children”, the conference was organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM).

Professor Myriam Wijlens, a member of the PCPM, spoke to Vatican News’ Johana Bronkova about how the Church is moving forward in addressing the scourge of sexual abuse.

Listening and justice

The Dutch-born theologian, who teaches canon law at the University of Erfurt in Germany, said the Warsaw conference showed that “the Church has learned to listen, and is learning increasingly to listen better.”

Prof. Wijlens said Bishops, and the entire Church community, are growing in the awareness that survivors of clerical sexual abuse must be listened to.

“The next step, however,” she added, “will be to administer justice.”

Better training required

Administering justice, said Prof. Wijlens, is a challenge, because it requires specific training on the part of canon lawyers and those who investigate abuse cases.

“You have to learn how to gather the data and proof, and ask the right questions. We are not trained to do that,” she noted, saying neither she as a canon lawyer nor priests and lay people have received proper training in order to assist in the administration of justice.

Prof. Wijlens also referred to what she perceives as a fear among bishops to set out clear consequences for offenders, which has consequences since sexual abuse is especially an “abuse of trust.”

“If the bishops do not step up and see to it that justice is administered, the community as such cannot trust the judgement of the bishop, which affects the whole community.”

Double-edged sword

Prof. Wijlens recounted that she has been involved in prosecuting abuse cases since 1987, saying that her experience has shown her that the Church is “on the way” regarding the issue.

She now lives in what was once East Germany, and admitted that she had to learn very quickly how things used to work when the region was under communist rule.

“There would have been the danger of false allegations [of sexual misconduct], which would have put the priest under suspicion,” she said. “But it was also possible that if priests were engaging in [sexual abuse] they would have been caught by the Stasi (East German secret police)—institutions that existed in Eastern Europe—and then have been forced to cooperate with them. So, in a way, there was a double system.”

At the same time, warned Prof. Wijlens, Church leaders should not fall into the opposite trap and merely dismiss allegations outright as false. “It requires a very careful analysis of what is brought forward,” she added. “It’s a painful process.”

Listen to the full interview

Process of rebuilding trust

When asked about her thoughts on the challenges facing the Church regarding clerical sexual abuse, Prof. Wijlens mentioned both the particular difficulties of rebuilding trust in Central and Eastern Europe, and the universal aspect of revising the Church’s procedures for abuse cases.

“Bishops have a very complicated role: they have to look into allegations, and inform people of them,” she said, adding that transparency is important to the faith community.

On a more general level, the Church faces the task of revising canonical norms for cases of sexual abuse, while balancing confidentiality and transparency.

“The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has this on its agenda, is very much aware of it, and will be attending to this issue, hopefully, in the coming months,” concluded Prof. Wijlens. “At the same time, the revision of laws and procedures is a long and complicated process, so we are taking steps there, but that doesn’t mean we’ll have results within a short time frame.”

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22 September 2021, 16:45