Life & Soul Life and Soul

The best thing that could emerge from the abuse summit

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and television reporter Valentina Alazraki of Televisa are pictured during the third-day of a meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Fine words butter no parsnips. Nor indeed can jargon take the place of an attempt to serve a better quality of vegetable. At the risk of seeming excessively negative, this about sums up my views on the recently concluded Vatican summit on the abuse of minors.

It is good to hear promises of zero tolerance and transparency, but we have promised these before. If the daily press conferences were supposed to model this new transparency, there is frankly little hope of progress. Difficult questions were ignored or met with opaque jargon about synodality and radical listening. I do not doubt that the promises of improved procedures are sincerely meant, but by their fruits shall ye know them. It remains to my mind essentially an admission of failure that after 20 years of revelations, the world’s bishops can now assent to a self-evident truth in such a way as to act decisively on it – a truth any parent could tell you – that the sexual abuse of children is terrible and should not be concealed.

If the Church really is committed to zero tolerance of abuse and not a statistical justification of its relative incidence in her (celibate) ranks, her leaders must stop quoting statistics about how it occurs in families and other communities too, only more so. Seeing every case as evidence of something gravely wrong in the Church is zero tolerance.

It was a good thing that bishops listened to the testimonies of survivors, but what concrete measures are they proposing that will bring them healing? What resources will be directed towards healing and supporting victims? As someone who works with survivors of clerical abuse (and has to raise all necessary resources to do so) it distresses me that the abuse crisis continues to be discussed as though it concerns the past, or the creation of a different future.

The victims of atrocity are not healed by the promise that it won’t happen again, any more than cancer patients’ symptoms are relieved by knowing that lots of people donate to cancer research. It is the particular nature of sexual abuse which, because it is such a threat to bodily integrity, derails normal brain and body function. Such experience is processed differently from ordinary memories. Often its survivors live with the same level of fear and danger, of powerlessness and shutdown, as in those excruciating moments they describe when the abuse first happened. Their wounds are live memories, not painful twinges from past scars. If, like victims of physical violence, they had missing limbs and visible scars, their sufferings would be more obvious and invite more sympathy and credence. But the devastating legacy of their wounds is no less great for being often invisible.

The worst outcome of this summit would be for people to assume that the crisis is now coming to an end. The best outcome would be an honest acknowledgement that we have consistently failed to realise the seriousness of the malaise in the Church at a functional and an organic level, and that creating protocols and systems so perfect that no one can sin has nowhere near completed our task.

The change of heart of which Archbishop Charles Scicluna spoke is key, and that change would be signified by directing the Church’s efforts above all else towards healing victims, as Benedict XVI pointed out as long ago as 2010.