The Church has engaged in a systematic cover-up of sexual abuse by the clergy and protected pedophile priests, while the victims were “trampled underfoot.”
This declaration against the ecclesiastical hierarchy came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Monaco and Freising and president of the German Bishops Conference, who spoke Saturday morning at the Vatican during the synod on the “Protection of Minors in the Church,” which brought together 190 presidents of bishops’ conferences and religious superiors from all over the world.
Marx’s speech was very much in line with the message coming from the protests outside the venue of the synod by victims of abuse in the Church, who, in a demonstration organized by the Ending Clerical Abuse (ECA) international network, marching from Piazza del Popolo to St. Peter’s Square, demanded “zero tolerance” and called for “an end to impunity” and to the cover-ups of abuse scandals by the Church.
“The sexual abuse of children and youths is in no small measure due to the abuse of power in the area of administration,” Marx said. The ecclesiastical administration, he added, “has not contributed to fulfilling the mission of the Church, but on the contrary, has obscured, discredited and made it impossible. 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. The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offences were deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden. The rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot, and left to the whims of individuals.”
As he later clarified at the press conference, he was referring in particular to the German dioceses; however, he stressed that Germany was “not an isolated case.”
What is essential is “transparency and traceability,” he said, to clarify “who has done what, when, why and what for, and what has been decided, rejected or assigned.” Marx said there are no valid objections to these fundamental principles: not on account of “pontifical secrecy” (which cannot apply to “criminal offenses concerning the abuse of minors”), nor on account of the risk of “ruining the reputation of innocent priests and the priesthood and the Church.”
“The presumption of innocence, the protection of personal rights and the need for transparency are not mutually exclusive. The opposite is the case.” Indeed, Marx said, “it is not transparency which damages the church but rather the acts of abuse committed, the lack of transparency or the ensuing cover up.”
Saturday was also a time for women, in particular, to speak up.
Friday evening saw the testimony of a victim who had been abused since she was 11 by a priest from her parish: “Since then,” she said, “I, who loved coloring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed. Instead, engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul, are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength: I desensitized myself, I held my breath, I came out of my body, I searched desperately for a window to look out of, waiting for it all to end.” She ended her testimony with an appeal for victims to be protected so they could come forward: “We victims, if we can find the strength to speak out or expose, must find the courage to do so, knowing that we risk not being believed, or seeing our abuser getting away with a small canonical penalty. This cannot and must not be the case any longer!”
Then came the speech by Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian nun and the leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, who stressed the existence of a phenomenon already known for some years, but which still remains outside public awareness: the violence suffered by nuns at the hands of priests and clergymen, especially In Africa. The Church is doing something to address the issues, but they have “not been addressed sufficiently,” added Openibo, highlighting some of the problems that must be deal with, such as “misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general.” She said the Church must abolish the tendency to try “to avoid exposing a scandal and bringing discredit to the church,” as well as the notion “that respect be given to some priests by virtue of their advanced years and hierarchical position,” which she called an “unacceptable … excuse.”
The summit ended Sunday with the mass and the pope’s final remarks. The positions of each camp have been made clear. Conservatives are blaming homosexuality, which, they claim, is the root cause of sexual abuse (although such an explanation completely ignores the violence against women). The pro-Francis majority, however, is pointing to clericalism and power structures as the root cause of the abuses, and is demanding the creation of autonomous institutional structures to hear accusations, with the involvement of the laity and women, collaborating with and reporting to the civil authorities, as well as a reform of the notion of pontifical secrecy and the removal of all priests who have perpetrated such acts, as well as all bishops who colluded or were complicit with them.
The discussions did not even mention the issue of mandatory celibacy—which, according to many observers, is the real crux of the problem—but on this point even Francis is unwilling to budge. However, concrete proposals in this regard have been put forward. The synod did not have decisional power by itself, and thus we will have to wait and see what new rules will be approved as a result. Most importantly, Church leaders “should not believe that just because we have begun to change something together, that all difficulties have thereby been eliminated,” said Ghanaian Archbishop Philip Naameh in his homily at the penitential mass on Saturday.