An unprecedented Vatican four-day summit closed with a mass at which Pope Francis promised an “all-out battle” to prevent more sex abuse of children by pedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes.
The global sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, considered the longest continually operating international organization, threatens its credibility and the pope’s leadership. He summoned church leaders to Rome to galvanize support for taking “every necessary measure” to prevent any further abuse.
“No abuse should ever be covered up — as was often the case in the past — or not taken sufficiently seriously,” Francis told 190 bishops and religious superiors in the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican City.
The pope emphasized that mistreatment of children is a global problem. He cited a 2013 World Health Organization study that found 18 million children in Europe alone suffered emotional or physical abuse; 852 died of abuse each year. Sexual abusers afflicted 13.4 percent of the girls and 5.7 percent of the boys.
“This evil is in no way less monstrous when it takes place in the church,” the pope said. “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more gray and scandalous in the church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”
He referenced a 2017 UNICEF study showing three quarters of children aged two to four worldwide — close to 300 million — were regularly subjected to violent discipline by parents or other caregivers at home, and six in 10 — 250 million — were subjected to physical punishment.
That study said children were at greatest risk of encountering sexual violence within close relationships, and, among 28 countries where data was available, nine in 10 adolescent girls who reported forced sex said it occurred for the first time due to someone close or known to them.
But the pope said statistics on sexual abuse of children that are available from organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Interpol and Europol often underestimate the true extent of the problem, because many cases go unreported, particularly within families.
“Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies,” the pope said.
“Only in relatively recent times has it become the subject of systematic research,” he said. “Thanks to changes in public opinion regarding a problem that was previously considered taboo, everyone knew of its presence yet no one spoke of it.”
#Vatican holds the 1st meeting of sr. bishops to tackle child sexual exploitation. Survivor groups like @ENDCLERGYABUSE are skeptical & pledge to carry on their battle. The church must listen to them if they are serious about ending this crime. #Churchtoohttps://t.co/1r4JcKyhB2 pic.twitter.com/gjUgTzToJU
— ECPAT International (@ECPAT) February 22, 2019
The summit opened with victims from Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America telling bishops about severe trauma they suffered because of sex abuse and the church’s indifference.
An African woman testified about being repeatedly raped by her priest since she was 15. He forced her to have three abortions over more than a decade. A cardinal from Colombia warned that church officials could be prosecuted and jailed if the sexual crimes were not punished.
The pope noted that victims rarely speak out and seek help, and “behind this reluctance, there can be shame, confusion, fear of reprisal, various forms of guilt, distrust of institutions, forms of cultural and social conditioning,” along with lack of information about where to go for help.
“The anguish tragically leads to bitterness, even suicide, or at times to seek revenge by doing the same thing,” he said. “One thing is certain: that millions of children in the world are victims of exploitation and sexual abuse.”
The pope offered an eight-point pledge to instill wide-ranging institutional change. It laid out his priorities for changing the church’s defensive posture and becoming transparent in its handling of cases. It also emphasized listening and responding to the needs and concerns of victims.
“You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith,” said Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who had received a personal apology at a meeting with the pope last year.
The Vatican announced it would issue a new law on child protection for Vatican City State, which extends to the Holy See bureaucracy, and issue a document from Pope Francis, Catholic News Agency reported. It also will publish a handbook of tasks and obligations of bishops.
“At the end of the day, it is the change of heart that is important,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s leading sex-crimes investigator.
Some victims and critics of the church said the summit did not go far enough in responding to the clerical sex abuse crisis that first surfaced more than 30 years ago in Ireland and Australia, then spread to the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
“Several new ideas in the papal summit, but none address this awful truth: Today in many countries, priests found guilty of child molestation can be returned to ministry by their bishops in full compliance with canon law,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, a research analyst with BishopAccountability.org.
The pope’s hierarchy has long been accused of covering up misconduct of top prelates, such as Theodore McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington who often mingled with those in power. It was only last week that McCarrick was formally stripped of the priesthood after a Vatican investigation found him guilty of sexually abusing adults and minors, including his use of confession to solicit sex.
Globally, the impact and scale of the sexual exploitation of children, which violates their basic human rights and imposes lifetime trauma, “continues to outpace laws and policies, the justice system and child protection services,” according to a 2018 report from ECPAT International, a Bangkok-based global network of 107 civil society organizations in 95 nations that works to prevent sexual exploitation of children.
The international organization said there was no typical victim, offender or offense, and the opportunities for predators to exploit vulnerable children through sexual abuse were expanding because of the Internet, mobile technology and cheap travel.
Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian-born nun, said the church must finally end its longstanding silence on sexual issues and its habitual willingness to look the other way.
“Let us not hide such events anymore because of the fear of making mistakes,” she said after recounting some of the abuse cases she learned about during her work on sexual education in Nigeria. “Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by. Our credibility is at stake.”