Vatican emphasizes transparency and accountability at sex abuse summit

Light of truth

In a significant development to ensure as much transparency as possible at the first-ever summit on the protection of minors in the Church (Feb. 21-24), the Vatican will live-stream all the keynote speeches and the interventions of Pope Francis, as well as the penitential service and the closing Mass.

Furthermore, the Vatican has also opened a special website that is accessible to the public. It provides substantial information not only on the conference, but also on the Church’s struggle to deal with the abuse of minors by members of the clergy since the mid-1980s. The website also provides a special press kit for journalists. The Vatican has also released the full list of participants at the summit.

All this news, and much more, was provided at a press conference in the Vatican on Feb. 18, the likes of which has not been seen since the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis. The conference was chaired by Alessandro Gisotti, the interim press officer, who said the summit was called to address the abuse of minors by clergy and paid special tribute to the victims for their courage.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the three members of the preparatory committee for the summit established by Pope Francis, also praised “the courage of the victims” that has given rise to this summit, and said “it is very important for all of us to bear in our hearts the suffering of the victims, which they will bear for their lives.” He recalled that Pope Francis had asked the summit to focus on minors “because they are the ones without defence” and “to give a voice to the voiceless.” He acknowledged that there are other challenges too that would not be the focus of this summit, alluding to the abuse of vulnerable adults and of women religious and other women by clergy, but said that the work of the summit on responsibility, accountability and transparency would also contribute to addressing those issues. He recalled that Pope Francis had asked participants to meet with victims-survivors of abuse before the summit, and said the website will provide some interviews with bishops who share their experience of this.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s most authoritative figure in combating abuse, recalled that, on the return flight from Panama, Pope Francis said this summit aimed to foster awareness throughout the Church on the issue of abuse and “our responsibility” as shepherds, to enable bishops to know what needs to be done when faced with abuse and to pray. He told the press that the summit will focus on the “responsibility” of bishops and heads of religious orders, on “accountability” and on “transparency,” and said “all three are important aspects of good government, good stewardship, and essential to making the Church the safe place it should be for minors.”

The Maltese archbishop went out of his way to “thank” the media not only for their interest in the summit, but also for their investigative work in bringing this topic to the light of day, and for having “helped the Church come to an awareness of all this.”

Pope Francis said this summit aimed to foster awareness throughout the Church on the issue of abuse and “our responsibility” as shepherds.

The next speaker, Federico Lombardi S.J., the former director of the Holy See Press Office whom Pope Francis asked to serve as the summit’s moderator, told the press there will be some 190 participants at the four-day event, including the presidents of 114 bishops’ conferences, the heads of the Eastern rite Catholic Churches and of the main Roman Curia offices, 12 superiors of men’s religious orders and 10 superiors of women’s religious orders, and two lay women, as well as men and women survivors (whose names were not disclosed). Valentina Alazraki, a Mexican journalist, will also be one of the speakers at the conference.

Pope Francis will give a brief introduction on the first day, will be present throughout the summit and will give a concluding talk after Mass on Sunday morning, Feb. 24. Father Lombardi said the penitential service and Mass will be held in the Apostolic Palace, next to the Sistine Chapel.

The next speaker was Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who has played a crucial role as coordinator of the preparatory committee established by Pope Francis. He recalled that a questionnaire was sent to the presidents of the bishops conferences (the text is on the website) and 89% had already responded; the responses are now being analysed and will be made public in due course.

The last speaker was Bernadette Reis, F.S.P., the assistant to the interim director of the press office. She explained the contents of the press kit that she helped to develop to facilitate the work of journalists. It contains essential historical and current information on this whole subject of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis.

After the presentation of the summit, the panel spent 55 minutes answering questions from journalists on a wide range of issues. When asked if “the code of silence” that involves the covering up of abuse still exists, or has a place in the Church today, Archbishop Scicluna said: “Silence is a ‘no go’ in the Church today….We have to break away from the code of silence; we must break away from any complicity to deny; only the truth will make us free.”

Questioned about the effectiveness of the Catholic Church’s efforts to combat and prevent abuse by members of the clergy, Cardinal Cupich said that these efforts are in fact working in the U.S. Church, adding that these efforts do not always make headlines because of the wave of historical cases that make the news. He said this is clearly shown by the fact that there have been only five cases of abuse by clergy reported over each of the past five years, with the exception of 2017, when there were six cases (four of those six were committed by one priest). And while even one case is one too many, this shows that the safeguarding efforts are working.

While some commentators predicted that the short time for the preparation of the conference would militate against its good organization, today’s press conference suggests otherwise. Judging by what was said and presented today, the summit appears to be well planned and organized, including planning for the media.

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