Prof. Wijlens: Church studying best ways to promote rights of abuse victims
By Gudrun Sailer & Devin Watkins
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors held a three-day academic seminar earlier this week to study provisions in various judicial systems and to evaluate the role of victims in canonical penal procedures.
The seminar went under the title “The Rights of Alleged Victims of Sexual Abuse as Minors in Canonical Penal Procedures” and saw Roman Curia officials and various experts take part.
Professor Myriam Wijlens, a member of the Commission, spoke to Gudrun Sailer about the event.
She said it stemmed from a previous meeting in 2019 which discussed balancing transparency and confidentiality in cases involving clerical sexual abuse.
At that event, Commission members realized there was a need to listen to victims and to explore their rights in different legal procedures.
Here is a transcript of the interview:
Prof. Wijlens: We also discovered that it might be wise to listen—the new word of the pontificate of Pope Francis: to listen—to civil jurisdictions around the world.
How do they view, protect and promote the rights of victims in procedures? Therefore, we had a consultation in which we began first by listening to a victim of abuse; we had a victim from France who reported how she has experienced the procedure. It was not about to abuse itself, but about the experience of the procedure itself.
Then we listened to what the current canonical status [of a victim] is. What are the current canonical provisions? So, we invited somebody who works for the United Nations, a special rapporteur, who informed us about international standards and agreements that express the standards for protecting the victims in the different procedures.
After that we moved to different countries around the world to listen to them. We grouped them by their legal tradition. So, we had the common law tradition; we had countries that find their roots in Roman law, and we had countries that—we can say—belong to the Germanic tradition. It was really beautiful because we listened to Australia, the Philippines, India, and the United States: that was the first group. Then we listened to Argentina, Spain, France, and Italy—the second group—and then to Germany and Poland.
Q: What did you discover? What did the process of listening teach you as canon lawyers?
We discovered that there are international standards, that some of these standards—this was emphasized also by some present—find their roots in the Christian tradition. And therefore, it is good to look at those standards in themselves.
But, what was really interesting was to discover that even the different legal traditions unfold quite differently in the various countries. So, there is diversity in the application, and I think it is important for us to know that this diversity exists, in particular because victims in the Catholic Church might have a cultural expectation from the legal culture in which they live, by which they then anticipate that the Church will interact in a similar way.
Now, the Church cannot always do that, but it is good for the Church, which has a legal system and makes legal provisions for a worldwide Church, and for us to listen to the others and how they do it.
Q: What is the main problem today for a victim of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: to be heard or to have his or her rights observed?
I think one of the main challenges is that, although the Catholic Church has some of the rights of victims already in its norms, they are insufficiently visible.
So, there is also a very human dimension to how we implement the norms that we have. I will offer a simple example: the first right of a victim would really be to report that there was an abuse. There are dioceses in the world that still don't have this on their website, or you have to seek with a lot of difficulty to find it.
Victims are asking: do I have to go back to the tribunal of the diocese where the abuse took place, although I now live somewhere else in another part of the country?
No. Canon law allows already for assistance from another tribunal in another diocese, but this is not always applied. So, these are very basic questions which, and that was the question for this conference: What does that mean on how we can better inform victims, and what legal challenges may need improvement?