This Thursday, the high-level four-day summit on clerical sexual abuse summoned by Pope Francis last September, will gather the presidents of all bishops’ conferences, the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and representatives of religious superiors.
The small planning committee – the Jesuit Father Hans Zollner of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and our own, Archbishop Charles Scicluna – has announced that “it will be a meeting of pastors, who will listen to the testimonies of victim-survivors and focus on the themes of responsibility, accountability, and transparency.”
After an agonising year for the Vatican and the many episcopal conferences, where sex abuse scandals were scrutinised, and even worse, where systemic cover-up was laid bare, the summit is being hyped as a make-or-break deal for this papacy’s reputation.
Still, Pope Francis, who will be attending the meeting, in his in-flight press conference from Panama, has sought “to deflate expectations”, making it clear that, while the summit will be a “catechesis” for bishops, the plague of abuse that extends in culture at large remains “a human problem” that will not go away.
Instead, in line with the Letter to the People of God he penned last August, the Pope stressed that the highlight of the meeting will not be just protocol and procedure, but prayer, culminating with a “penitential liturgy to ask forgiveness for the whole Church”.
This emphasis on penance and prayer has baffled and even angered victims of abuse and their loved ones, as if the Pope were calling for cheap grace. Yet, in his Letter, the Holy Father made it clear that “the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons” is not just a crime that demands punishment, but a collective wound that requires healing. “If one member suffers,” he wrote, “all suffer together”.
Conversely, if as one people of God we do not feel the suffering of the most vulnerable; if we remain in denial of the gravity of our condition, then we also cannot repent and be restored for our transgressions.
It is not just the abuser who perpetuates violence; it is also the community unwilling to listen and acknowledge, who turns a bind eye and ignores. Silence demeans the victim and their suffering, as they are left shattered and isolated. Nothing can contradict the Gospel more than the cries of victims falling on ears that stubbornly refuse to listen because their hearts are hardened.
It is this “hardness of heart”, this blindness as refusal to see, that the discipline of prayer and fasting seeks to break (cf. Mt 17:21). Unless there is solidarity with the victim, unless we can be pierced by the horror and their cries for justice, there can be no conceding that sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience are scourges of a deeper mutilation in the one body of Christ; of a collective betrayal of the truth that in Him “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Gal 3:28).
Clericalism, which Pope Francis has identified as the root sinfulness of the current crisis, is not simply an aberration shared by clerics and laity alike, but a manifestation of a deeper and more paradoxical theological truth: that the “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church” remains marred by sin even in her being called to witness the Gospel.
The abuse crisis is an indelible mark of the Church’s identity just as much as her works of mercy. Her sins must forever be sealed in her memory precisely to keep her humble and contrite, lest she forgets that it is only in Christ that her darkness is conquered and she can reflect his light to others.
Only as the Church kneels in repentance, as she begs for forgiveness to her Lord who died especially for her many sins, can she become the “wounded healer”, revealing his resurrected – but scarred – body in the world.
Nadine Delicata is a moral theologian and lecturer in the Faculty of Theology of the University of Malta.
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