In a homily during a Mass to six people, on 7 July 2014, Pope Francis said, ‘Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask for your forgiveness’.
Two of those people came from Ireland, two from England and two from Germany, and all had been abused in the Church. He met with each one of them individually and listened to their experience of the impact of abuse on their lives. He praised them for ‘the courage that you and others have shown by speaking up, by telling the truth – a service of love – since for us it shed light on a terrible darkness in the life of the Church’. He recognised many had experienced ‘wounds which are a source of deep and often unrelenting emotional and spiritual pain and even despair’.
He spoke strongly about those who abuse, ‘They profane the very image of God in whose likeness we were created. There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a child by any individual whether a cleric or not.’ He asked forgiveness, too, for those ‘Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members as well as by abuse victims themselves and made it clear that he expects all bishops ‘to carry out their pastoral ministry …to help foster the protection of children, and they will be held accountable’.
The meeting with the six abuse survivors was arranged to coincide with the second meeting of a special Commission established by the Pope to advise on all aspects of prevention of abuse, procedures for dealing with complaints of abuse, education and awareness-raising programmes. The Commission’s eight members all have substantial relevant experience; one was abused as a 13-year-old girl by a priest hospital chaplain. She has become a very powerful advocate for survivors. The Commission is independent of any Vatican department reporting directly to the Pope.
On the same day, I was in Rome representing New Zealand at an annual meeting of people involved in working to deal with abuse in the Catholic Church. Representatives from 17 countries shared experiences. Some were from countries, like New Zealand, which had responded to this problem some years ago; others were just starting that journey. Our meeting began with a very strong challenge from Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, ‘There are still within the Church some who play down the realities of abuse, or who take shortcuts with regard to established guidelines. In doing so they damage the Church’s witness to the healing power of Jesus Christ.’
The New Zealand Catholic Church has just launched the Safe-Church
Programme, which will see the development and delivery of a training and awareness-raising programme for all who work in the Church – priests, religious, staff and volunteers. Maria Noonan is the programme leader. The Church in this country has good policies and procedures for responding to abuse complaints. This programme will be more active, focusing on recognising and preventing abuse and will enable the Church to improve its recruitment and training.
In his homily the Pope referred to Peter when he sees Jesus emerge after a terrible interrogation, and is ashamed of his betrayal. ‘We ask that he look at us …and that he give us the grace to be ashamed so that we can hear him say ‘go back and feed my sheep’ – and I would add – ‘let no wolf enter the fold’.
Bill Kilgallon is Director for the National Office for Professional Standards of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand.