A woman’s promise to her grandmother becomes a UN World Day
By Sr Bernadette M. Reis, fsp with Jennifer Wortham
For many, last Friday was just like any other day in the centre of Rome. Children went off to school, tourists bustled about the city, people went to work, locals walked their dogs, and shopped for groceries. Yet, for survivors of child sexual abuse across the world, November 18, 2022 is a historic day. It marked the first World Day for the Prevention of, and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence, formally recognized by the United Nations in a unanimous vote on November 7, 2022.
In a press conference following the UN landmark action, the First Lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone, who with her husband President Julius Maada Bio facilitated the Resolution in collaboration with the Mission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, credited Dr. Jennifer Wortham for bringing the issue of child sexual abuse and exploitation to her attention, and leading a global advocacy campaign to support the adoption of the day at the UN.
Sr Bernadette spoke with Dr. Wortham about the world day and the events that took place in Rome last Thursday and Friday which culminated on Saturday in a private audience with Pope Francis and survivors who co-founded the Global Collaborative.
Beginning of the journey
It was a deathbed promise made to her grandmother that inspired Jennifer to establish a world day for the prevention and healing of child sexual abuse. “In 1993, my family learned of my brothers’ abuse by our beloved parish priest. The news of their abuse, and the events that transpired following our reporting of their abuse to church officials, destroyed my family. As a result, my brothers suffered throughout their lives from the emotional and physical effects of their abuse. I tried to help them, but nothing I did seemed to work. I was resigned that there was nothing more that might be done. I gave up and went about my life, helping when I could with financial support, knowing that it was just a temporary relief.”
In 2007, Jennifer’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She had only a few weeks to live by the time the aggressive cancer was discovered. Jennifer recalls walking into her grandmother’s hospital room one evening and found her grandmother crying. “I thought she was crying because she was afraid of dying, so I tried to comfort her. “I told her, ‘Don’t be afraid, you're going to be with God.’ Then she looked at me and said, ‘I’m not afraid to die.’ I asked her if she was in pain, and she said, ‘My heart hurts. It was my fault that my beautiful grandsons were abused by our priest...I brought that man into our lives…I left him with my grandsons alone at the rectory’“.
Jennifer tried to assure her grandmother that it was not her fault. “I told her no one knew a priest could do such things…but nothing I said would console her. I held her hand not knowing what else to say, and then she looked at me with her tear-filled eyes and said, ‘I’m sad because I don’t have time to fix this, so you must help them. If they don’t learn to let go of their pain and suffering, they will spend eternity in purgatory. You must promise me that you will help them find a way to forgive me, and to forgive the Church. Please help them find their way back to God. Promise me you will do this.’ I didn’t know how I would do it, but I promised that I would find a way. This oath, I took very seriously, but I had no idea how I would help them”.
Finding the way home
Jennifer did try to help her brothers, “but nothing I did seemed to work”, she recounts. Instead, “years went by, and I lost hope. Then in 2015, I encountered a difficult challenge at work and feared for my job. I didn’t know how to handle the situation, and I wished with all my heart that I could talk to my grandmother since she always knew how to help me. Had she been alive, she would have taken me to church to pray.”
With her grandmother’s rosary in hand, Jennifer made her way to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Palm Desert, California. “I just looked at the statue of Mary, and I looked up and I said, ‘God what do you want from me?’ I prayed and I heard the words ‘Have mercy’”. With that, Jennifer remembers being flooded with memories of “all the wonderful times that I'd had with my grandparents and the Church…and my grandfather being an usher…and lighting the candles…and my grandma sewing alter cloths and vestments for the priests, and singing in the choir…my brothers serving as altar boys… I felt like God was holding me in that moment and I came home. I came back to the Church”.
Jennifer describes that moment as one filled with “grace, clarity and forgiveness”. “It was like all the things had just gone and I felt healed”, she explains.
Several months later, Jennifer found two bird’s nests in her backyard. She gave one to a friend and kept the other in her own home. “Then one afternoon, I looked up and I saw myself handing this bird’s nest to Pope Francis. I had no idea how this would happen, but I knew it was a calling I had to follow”. So, just days after the close of the Jubilee of Mercy, Jennifer faxed a 6-page letter, accompanied by a Spanish translation, to Pope Francis. Included in the letter were the dates she planned to be in Rome over Christmas along with her intentions to present him with a gift. “I received a reply 36 hours later that His Holiness would see me at the General Audience, during my visit.”
That audience took place on 28 December 2016. After greeting several celebrities and dignitaries, blessing newlyweds and newborns, and ministering to the sick, it was her turn. “His Holiness stood before me and stayed with me for about 10 minutes. He had tears in his eyes and apologized for the way my family was treated. He asked how my brothers were doing, and I told him they struggled. I asked him to pray for them, and he said he would. I presented the nest to him on a pedestal of petrified wood, accompanied by a small card with the words – His Love Springs Eternal. When Pope Francis saw the nest, he smiled, read the card out loud, and asked about the meaning of the gift. I explained that I was called to present this gift to him, in recognition for all he had done to bring justice to those who have suffered, and for enlightening the world to the glory of Mercy”.
“When I returned home from my visit, with His Holiness, I felt there was something more I had to do”. That ‘something’ eventually became clear to her – the establishment of a World Day. Jennifer began reaching out to other organizations, including the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. At a certain point, she realized she needed to go beyond a World Day promoted primarily within Catholic circles since “child sexual abuse occurs in every faith community, and across all venues, in every region of the world. If we were to truly address the issue on a global scale, we would need to bring the concept to the United Nations”, she realized.
“The symposium provided great momentum to our movement”, Jennifer recalls, “and we launched the Global Collaborative with many of the partners who participated in it.” The Global Collaborative, Jennifer explains “is an all-volunteer, survivor-led network bringing together governments, NGOs, and faith leaders from across the different faith traditions.”
The impossible becomes possible
Even with this early success, the international organizations, and many of the governments Jennifer approached, told her that UN recognition of a World Day would likely never happen. In an open letter requesting the adoption of the World Day by world leaders, the Global Collaborative collected over 50 signatures, and they held meetings with government officials in various countries. The invariable answer was no.
Then Jennifer met the person she now calls her hero, and the ‘Pearl of Africa’ – First Lady Fatima Maada Bio of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Fatima already had a track record of targeting sexual violence against children and promoting tougher laws and penalties for child rapists in Sierra Leone. “When I talked with the First Lady”, Jennifer recalls, “she said, ‘I'm going to help you’. And I wasn't sure to believe it, but she was so firm and so constant, and we started collaborating”. The First Lady introduced Jennifer to her husband, the President of Sierra Leone, who agreed to sponsor the World Day.
Jennifer says that if it was not for the President and First Lady of Sierra Leone, and the valuable support of Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, the adoption of the World Day by the UN on November 7th would not have happened. “We are all so incredibly grateful to them”, she says, while also acknowledging the contribution of so many others, including the Council of Europe who had already designated November 18 as the European Day on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. “It was a journey. The UN vote was on November 7th and they had over 120 countries sponsor it. And UN insiders said it made history, that they had never seen a resolution move along so quickly. It was meant to be”, said Jennifer.
First World Day celebrations in Rome
The Global Collaborative, First Lady Fatima Maada Bio and other people and organizations who collaborated in the effort were honoured and recognized in a Gala in Rome on the eve of the first World Day, 17 November 2022. Other events included a Symposium held in collaboration with the World Day of Prayer and Action for Children. Then, on Saturday, the final day “we were granted a private audience with Pope Francis, and he blessed each of us and our work. He walked in, and he shook each of our hands, and we could see that he struggled to walk, that he was suffering. It was noted by one of the people that supports him that he felt so strongly about what we had done and accomplished, and the way we were working with the Catholic Church, the Church of Latter-day, Saints, all the faith communities, that he wanted to stand to greet us…. So, we were all deeply moved and touched. And my brothers were there with me, and my nieces, and they got to experience all these events. I really do believe that it changed their lives. Out of the whole experience, all I can say is that I know in my heart that my grandmother is looking down from heaven, knowing I have done everything in my power to help restore the dignity of my brothers, and all the children who have been sexually abused around the world so they may find peace”.
According to the statistics released by the Global Collaborative prior to the first World Day events, “Nearly 1 in 4 women, and an estimated 1 in 13 men have experienced sexual violence before their 18th birthday”. As one survivor summed it up during Friday’s bi-lateral panel, this is a pandemic. Therefore, as Jennifer says, “this is clearly not just a Church issue. It's an issue for the Church, but its prevalence is about the same in all faith traditions and in general society. 65-70% of abuse actually happens in the home”.
To others who have suffered abuse in the Church, and to parents, Jennifer says, “the Church is really committed to managing this in a better way as they go forward. But I don't want people to just think, ‘Oh, that just happens in one place’, and not to be vigilant in taking care of what's going on at home with their children, what they’re doing online, not putting a child in a situation where they might be abused. Children need to be taught not to trust strangers, and to tell someone when they have been abused. Further, I think the focus needs to be on the red flags, what the conditions are that lead to sexual abuse, what the signs of abuse are, and how to intervene”.
Completely eradicating the crime of child sexual abuse is not possible, Jennifer admits. “What we can do she says, is “to identify it much sooner so that we can change the course of that child's life because, unfortunately most victims are severely damaged and have long-term consequences. So, if we can get to them sooner, we can help to alleviate some of those damages”.
Since there are already so many other groups working on prevention and justice, Jennifer has targeted healing as the next focus for the Global Collaborative. “We want to focus much of our work on healing – healing victims, healing families, healing relationships, healing institutions, and faith communities who are struggling with this issue. For the Church, I believe that if we truly walk the synodal path together, if the Church walks with victims and their families, and listens to them and supports them in their healing journey, it will help restore their dignity, bring them solace, and ever lasting peace.”