ROME— Several moments during the four-day summit on clerical sex abuse truly were inspirational. Like when Nigerian nun, Sister Veronica Openibo, scolded Pope Francis and the 190 church leaders who had gathered there. “How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?" she asked, at one point turning to the pope who was seated near her. “The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable.”
Other moments focused on the suffering at the center of the scandals. “From the age of 15 I had sexual relations with a priest,” the prelates heard on the first day, listening to one victim’s recorded testimony. “This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives. At first I trusted him so much that I did not know he could abuse me. I was afraid of him, and every time I refused to have sex with him, he would beat me.”
On Saturday evening, an unnamed young man, the victim of a predatory priest for years, spoke at an evening service where the conference attendees asked for forgiveness. He seemed to look each leader, including the pope, directly in the eye as he fought back tears. “What you carry inside you is like a ghost, which others are unable to see,” he said, describing his years of abuse. “They will never fully see and know you. What hurts the most, is the certainty that nobody will understand you. That lives with you for the rest of your life.” Then he went on to play a song so mournful on his violin that he seemed to bring that ghost to life.
But what will be remembered most from this extraordinary summit is likely to be what didn't happen. Francis called for an “all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and said that his church now “feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.”
He blamed the devil for leading certain clergy astray. “Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan,” Francis said in closing remarks. “In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children.”
But he also engaged in egregious whataboutism, naming many other instances of abuse not conducted by priests in the Catholic Church. “The first truth that emerges from the data at hand is that those who perpetrate abuse, that is acts of physical, sexual or emotional violence, are primarily parents, relatives, husbands of child brides, coaches and teachers,” Francis said in his closing remarks. “Research conducted in recent years on the phenomenon of the sexual abuse of minors also shows that the development of the web and of the communications media have contributed to a significant increase in cases of abuse and acts of violence perpetrated online. Pornography is rapidly spreading worldwide through the net. The scourge of pornography has expanded to an alarming degree, causing psychological harm and damaging relations between men and women, and between adults and children.”
He then said the Church must “rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”
Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert, summed up what many were thinking when he tweeted about the pontiff’s final remarks: “A number of good lines in Pope's address, but overall it is a disappointment. Does not sound like he wrote it.”
While the leaders and press gathered inside the conference hall, various victims’ groups, including Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests, or SNAP, and the newer End Clergy Abuse, held vigils, marches and press conferences to demand the pope speak the words “zero tolerance.”
The victims were not given a venue from which to watch the various events so had to huddle around cell phones to catch streaming on YouTube or ask journalists what was going on inside.
The survivor groups were disappointed from the moment the pope opened the conference with a 21-point list of guidelines.
“They don’t go anywhere, they’re not moving the line anywhere. There’s nothing different in here than there was yesterday,” Peter Isley, the head of End Clergy Abuse told reporters outside the summit hall. “Where is it in these points that if you’re a bishop or a cardinal and you’ve covered up child sex crimes, that you’re going to be removed from the priesthood or that any action will be taken against you? That’s not in here at all, so that’s not accountability and that’s not zero tolerance.”
Even those officials who spoke candidly seemed to then backtrack, as if they'd gone too far to admit the church’s mistakes. When German Cardinal Reinhard Marx told those gathered on Saturday that the church had “destroyed documents” relating to abuse there was a glimmer of hope that indeed the Vatican finally was admitting what many in the secular world have long believed.
“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created. Instead of the perpetrators, the victims were regulated and silence imposed on them,” he said during his summit speech, according to the transcript given to the press. “The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offenses were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden.”
But during a press conference hours later, he felt compelled to clarify that the documents he referred to were those discovered in a study relating only to Munich, not the global church, even though he could not say with certainty that it did not happen elsewhere.
To be fair, the conference was never going to come up with solutions to satisfy everyone. While clerical sex abuse in the United States is out in the open, sex is a taboo topic in many third-world countries. When Francis recommended that priests accused of abuse not be named publicly, he was surely talking about those places where they would be killed if such lists were published. Leaders from the African church started the conference questioning why there was such a focus on sex when minors in their countries are far more often subject to forced marriages and slave labor.
Still, the need for dialogue has long passed on this issue, and victims rightly want all credible accusations of clerical child abuse to be turned over immediately to secular authorities no matter what the social structures of individual countries might be.
One of the most poignant moments of the whole conference came when Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki of Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa addressed the gathered church leaders. “We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church,” Alazraki said. “If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side. We can be allies, not enemies. But if you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.”
The organizers admitted that the task at hand was daunting. Father Hans Zollner, president of the Center for the Protection of Minors at the Pontifical Gregorian University, admitted to CBC Canada that none of the victims who spoke officially had named their accusers and many weren't even aware whether their abusers were still active in ministry. “No, they have not disclosed it to me and my understanding is that maybe they don't know [if the priests are still active in the Church],” Zollner told CBC.
Marie Collins, a victim of clerical sex abuse in Ireland who resigned from the Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors last year, didn't attend the conference, but was disappointed nonetheless.
“I find it beyond belief that they could put forward eight survivors and not know who the perpetrators are," she said. “I'm just totally thrown at the idea that the Vatican would present eight survivors to a conference at this level and not have taken any interest whether their abusers have been removed from ministry or the church or in any way sanctioned. It's mind-boggling.”
One of the last clergy to speak was Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who was asked several times on the sidelines of the conference about the status of Cardinal George Pell’s abuse trials in Australia, for which the cardinal has been on a leave of absence as head of the Vatican treasury.
Coleridge refused to comment directly, citing a gag order in place in his country. “We have shown too little mercy, and therefore we will receive the same, because the measure we give will be the measure we receive in return,” he said during the homily of the final mass on Sunday. “We will not go unpunished.”
He then said that the conference had been productive and the church now had the responsibility to take all they learned over the four days and turn it into action. “All this will take time,” he said. “But we don't have forever.”
Pope Francis is expected to issue a final teaching document on March 25 when he is making a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Mary in Loreto, Italy.