VATICAN CITY — Although brief, the gathering organized by Pope Francis was long enough for participants to identify what allowed the Church to cover up sexual abuse cases. Survivors’ personal testimony played a crucial part in the Church acknowledging the seriousness of clerical abuse.
The closing Mass on Sunday Feb. 24 was held in a highly symbolic space. The Sala Regia, the “throne room” inside the Apostolic Palace, is surrounded by huge frescoes denoting papal power, from depictions of Henry IV at Canossa to the Battle of Lepanto.
In his homily, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, invited participants to reflect on the notion of papal power.
He stated that power is “dangerous, because it can destroy,” especially “when separated from service.” He added that it requires a “Copernican revolution,” such as the one the bishops and religious leaders gathered for four days at the Vatican were ready to embark upon.
“For us, the Copernican revolution is the discovery that those who have been abused do not revolve around the Church but the Church around them,” he stated unequivocally.
“In discovering this, we can begin to see with their eyes and to hear with their ears; and once we do that, the world and the Church begin to look quite different. This is the necessary conversion.”
Abuse victims focus of summit
Personal accounts given by survivors were the central component of the summit. On the evening of Feb. 22 a 50-year-old woman spoke, telling the story of her destroyed childhood: “I was 11 years old when a priest from my parish destroyed my life.”
One participant described the bishops leaving the session as looking groggy. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg said, “I had to close my eyes, they were filled with tears,” adding, “it is absolutely necessary that we listen to these accounts.”
As a moderator of one of two French-speaking working groups at the summit, the president of bishops of the European Union said that watching and listening to participants, he had witnessed a gradual evolution and improvement, thanks to the personal testimony given by survivors.
“Bishops are changing. I can feel it in the way we are sharing and talking to one another,” he said.
“I had the impression at the start of the summit that some would be defensive, but in fact, they let them down. Our pope is wise, he knows that the Church cannot be changed through top-down orders, but that we have to change people’s hearts,” Hollerich said.
The pope’s rather Jesuit response to the situation also includes a high degree of clarity and pragmatism.
There were nine keynote speeches, three per day. Most of them were given by papal advisers and they clearly outlined the approach that Pope Francis intends to adopt in order that abuse is not only punished but also anticipated, prevented, and denounced within the Church.
Listen to individual cases, but make no excuses
The Vatican took the time to listen to those who wanted to outline strategies in certain countries or continents with regard, for example, to the systematic denunciation of perpetrators, which is not always straightforward in places where the rule of law does not prevail.
But, “cultural differences cannot be used as an excuse not to do everything we can to protect minors,” said Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
“The fact that there might be serious issues including poverty, health care, war, and violence in certain countries in the south does not mean the question of sexual abuse should be set aside,” insisted Nigerian Sr. Veronica Openibo, congregational leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
Her statement was a response to African bishops who have often questioned the priority of the issue.
The important role of women’s testimony
Despite the small proportion of women, only 15 in a total of 190 participants, their testimony played a significant role over the course of the four days.
“I heard the Church speak of itself: a feminine insight which is reflected in the Church,” the pope said after one woman’s testimony.
The women’s speeches were among the most moving and powerful, helping create an understanding of the mechanisms through which the Church was able to dissimulate sexual abuse and leading, finally, to the awareness of the absolute necessity to take immediate action.
— Céline Hoyeau, Nicolas Senèze, and Gauthier Vaillant