The Vatican sexual abuse summit – the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church – was a four-day summit meeting attended by almost 200 Church leaders from around the world, held in Vatican City from 21 to 24 February 2019.
The decades-long sexual abuse scandal has erupted in various parts of the world, and the Vatican gathering was an attempt to end what has been piecemeal, localised responses to what is arguably the greatest credibility crisis to face the church.
The unprecedented meeting brought together 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences including from Africa and Asia to address a problem that to many cultures remains a taboo.
Pope Francis attends a penitential liturgy at the Vatican, Saturday, February 23, 2019. The pontiff hosted a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP
The bishops, along with senior officials from the Roman Curia, listened to harrowing testimony from abuse survivors including from an Italian woman abused by a priest for five years beginning when she was 11.
Among the proposals put forward included 21 points of reflection for the bishops given to them by the Pope, along with eight best practice examples drawn from the World Health Organisation and other international bodies. Along with requirements to handle abuse claims, the 21 points included a code of conduct for clergy and robust screening of seminary candidates.
Pope Francis closed the unprecedented Vatican child protection summit by outlining eight points the Church will focus on in an ‘all-out battle’ against the sexual abuse of minors to ‘turn this evil into an opportunity for purification’.
‘We need to recognise with humility and courage that we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable, for they are an image of Jesus,’ Pope Francis said on Sunday following the Vatican summit’s closing Mass in the Sala Regia on Sunday 24 February.
‘For this reason, the Church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside the Church,’ he continued.
‘We need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil. It is how Jesus himself overcame it.’
“The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.’’ – Pope Francis
Building upon the World Health Organisation’s ‘Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children,’ the Pope presented eight guidelines to aid the Church in ‘developing her legislation’ on the issues.
The eight guidelines can be summarised as follows:
1. A ‘change of mentality’ to focus on protecting children rather than ‘protecting the institution’.
2. A recognition of the ‘impeccable seriousness’ of these ‘sins and crimes of consecrated persons’.
3. A genuine purification beginning with ‘self-accusation’.
4. Positive formation of candidates for the priesthood in the virtue of chastity.
5. Strengthening and reviewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences, reaffirming the need for ‘rules’.
6. The accompaniment of those who have been abused with an emphasis on listening.
7. Ensure that seminarians and clergy are not enslaved to an addiction to pornography.
8. Combat sexual tourism around the world.
‘The Church’s aim will thus be to hear, watch over, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten children, wherever they are,’ Pope Francis said.
‘To achieve that goal, 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,’ he continued.
Francis said that, ‘the brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.’
Pope Francis addresses bishops gathered at the Vatican child protection summit. Photo: CNS
Twice in his speech, the Pope highlighted ‘the scourge of pornography’ and its influence on violence against minors.
We need to ‘encourage countries and authorities to apply every measure needed to contain those websites that threaten human dignity,’ Pope Francis said, adding the Church should consider raising the age limit of the crime, specified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 of ‘the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors’ to above its current limit of 14 years old.
‘I would like to stress the important need to turn this evil into an opportunity for purification,’ Pope Francis said, thanking priests and faithful Catholics who have silently and faithfully lived out their vows of celibacy.
‘The best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims, to the People of Holy Mother Church and to the entire world, are the commitment to personal and collective conversion, the humility of learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable,’ he said.
‘In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides, encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry,’ Pope Francis said.
The Pope made a ‘heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.’
The Vatican vowed new anti-abuse guidelines for the Vatican City State, a handbook outlining the procedures to follow in abuse cases, and new task forces to help bishops’ conferences and dioceses that lack the resources to implement anti-abuse protocols on their own.
The summit saw the announcement of a plan for task forces to help under-resourced bishops’ conferences struggling to come up with strong child-protection norms. Additionally, there are plans to revise and create new canon laws. This includes legislation governing the prevention of abuse in the Vatican and the Roman Curia, a change to the Pontifical Secret – a code of confidentiality used in the church – and an amendment to Francis’ legal ruling ‘Come una Madre Amorevole’ (‘As a Loving Mother”), holding bishops accountable.
Those attending the meeting were also presented with a step-by-step plan to hold bishops accountable for allegations of sexual misconduct or of negligence in abuse cases.
The work of implementing the summit is now being worked on by the organisers and the Roman Curia.
The Pope’s summit demonstrated he is taking this crisis seriously, is facing up to the awful reality of crimes committed by clergy and is preparing to take all the necessary steps to ensure that the church is a safe place for children.
Catholic News Agency
Published in WelCom March 2019