Pope Francis Says He Meets Almost Weekly With Abuse Victims –
A National Catholic Reporter Article by Joshua J. McElwee
Comments by Brian Mark Hennessy of the Comboni Survivor Group
Pope Francis revealed in a meeting with confreres of his Jesuit order last month that he meets with survivors of sexual abuse on a nearly weekly basis, according to a newly released transcript of the encounter. In a Jan. 19 question and answer session during his visit to Peru, the text of which was published for the first time Feb. 15 by Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, the pope said the Catholic Church must hear from those who have been abused by clergy. “We need to listen to what someone who has been abused feels,” Francis told the Jesuits, according to the transcript, and continued: “On Fridays — sometimes this is known and sometimes it is not known — I normally meet some of them. The process they go through is very tough,” said the pope. “They are left annihilated. Annihilated!”
Francis had previously been known to have met with abuse victims only a handful of times over the span of his nearly five-year papacy. He met with survivors once in Philadelphia during his 2015 visit to the U.S. and again last month in Chile, where he visited before Peru. Revelation of the pontiff’s apparent weekly meetings with survivors in Rome raises a number of questions about how the Vatican has arranged the encounters and who has been chosen to take part. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement following the release of the transcript that Francis meets with abuse victims “several times a month” in order to listen to them “and to try to help them heal the grave wounds caused by abuse.” Burke said the meetings are held “under the strictest privacy,” out of respect for the victims’ suffering.
Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said in an email to NCR that Francis “has emphasized being close to the people, especially to the poor and those who have suffered different forms of violence.” “My understanding is that he makes a special point of meeting with victims of sexual abuse as minors,” said O’Malley. “Respecting their right to privacy, these meetings are not published. Some have become known … but most remain anonymous.”
Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor known for her persistence in pushing the Vatican to better protect children from abuse, called the revelation noteworthy and said she would like more information about the meetings. “I don’t think there’s awareness of this up to now,” said Collins, who resigned in frustration last March from O’Malley’s pontifical commission. “This is important news and it would be interesting to have more clarity around it.”
News of Francis’ weekly meetings comes as the pontiff is facing criticism over how he has handled accusations about Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, whom he appointed to lead the diocese of Osorno, Chile in 2015. Three survivors have said Barros was present as a priest to witness notorious abuser Fr. Fernando Karadima harm them in the 1980s and ’90s. During the trip to Chile, Francis called the accusations against Barros “calumny” and later doubled-down on that claim during a press conference on the plane back to Rome. Those remarks angered abuse survivors and advocate groups. Abuse-tracking website BishopAccountability.org said the pope had “turned back the clock to the darkest days” of the abuse scandals, and that it would make victims afraid to come forward for fear of not being believed. Francis appeared to make an about-face on the Barros issue upon returning home, with the Vatican announcing Jan. 30 that the pope would send Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the church’s most respected investigators of clergy abuse, to examine the survivors’ claims.
The Feb.15 Civiltà Cattolica transcript of the pope’s meeting with the Peruvian Jesuits is introduced with a short preface from Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who says the text was approved by Francis before publication. The text is in Italian, but Francis likely spoke in Spanish, Peru’s primary language and his native tongue. In the question and answer session, the pope told his Jesuit confreres that clergy sexual abuse is “the greatest desolation that the church is suffering.” The pontiff also recalled a story from his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires. He said he was walking through a square in the city and came across a couple with their child. As he passed, the couple told their child to come close and to “be careful of the pedophiles.” “How shameful I felt!” said Francis. “What shame! They didn’t realize that I was the archbishop, I was a priest and — what shame!”
The pope said the abuse scandals are “a great humiliation” and said they show “not only our fragility, but also, let us say so clearly, our level of hypocrisy.” He said has heard people cite statistics that the percentage of Catholic priests who have committed abuse is only 1.6 percent. “But it is terrible even if only one of our brothers is such!” said the pontiff. “For God anointed him to sanctify children and adults, and instead of making them holy he has destroyed them. It is horrible!” Francis said it was “notable” that some newer religious congregations have been the cause of abuse scandals.
COMMENTS BY BRIAN MARK HENNESSY OF THE COMBONI SURVIVOR GROUP
If the Pope thinks that only 1% of clerics are committing crimes against children then he is not keeping his eye upon the ball. At the UK Mirfield seminary of the Comboni Missionary Order, 14% of the clerics were committing sexual crimes against the UK and Irish child seminarians. That 14% may not sound very great, but over a period of two decades they managed to commit about 1000 acts of sexual abuse – each event a crime in its own right. Moreover, the Australian Royal Commission findings have determined that 14% was the average for the Catholics clerics working in that country. Some of the Orders actually had some 20% of clerics offending and in one Order the number of offending Brothers was circa 40%!
Marie Collins’ comments appear to show an element of surprise understandably for why would the Pope not have mentioned this before. If the names of the victims that he receives is kept from the public then why the total blackout! Moreover, why is it mentioned now? Is it simply to recover face following the lost opportunities to solve the Chilean problem – which eventually spiraled out of both his and the Vatican’s control. On the other hand, to be fair, it may not have appeared important for the Pope to mention it and he has simply taken the opportunity of his meeting with Jesuits to do so.
Pope Francis could set at rest all the hearts and minds of victims of clerical child sexual abuse crimes by clerics if he used his unique position to ensure some positive action. These would include re-opening his Pontifical Commission on the Safety of Children, ordering a thorough re-organisation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith so that they rationalise their Canons, operating procedures and justice processes. The Vatican should also appoint clerics throughout the world – possibly within the offices of the Apostolic Delegates – to the role of ‘liaison officer’ for Victims who have made reports of abuse that have been forwarded to CDF. Victims must be a part of the process. That is what a proper judicial system must provide.
In addition, CDF at the Vatican must set up a ‘quality control’ system whereby all local determinations of sentences of cases of sexual abuse by Bishops and Religious leaders are considered at CDF by a ‘reviewing officer’ prior to a final determination of sentence. All other equitable judicial systems have such a process – whether they are civil state or military systems of justice. Such a review by Vatican Higher Authority would ensure an appropriate worldwide standard of treatment is being applied to miscreant clerics and it would open up a dialogue with the local Ordinaries about the conclusions and standards of a specific case in relation to other sentences worldwide. Thus it would also obviate the need for a tribunal system, as previously advocated, to hold bishops and Religious Leaders to account for failing to deal correctly with a cleric who had abused a child.
The Vatican must emerge from its cocoon and flourish in such a way as the rest of the world will respect its processes and decisions. Secrecy and considerations of the avoidance of scandal must be flushed out of the Canonical processes. The world demands from its civil jurisdictions open, accessible and fully documented processes and results. The cloak of medieval secrecy, which was an instrument of power and unaccountability, must be swept away in the now desperate scenario in which the Catholic Church finds itself.