“Eradicate plague of sexual abuse in the church”

Papal child protection commission urges tougher consequences for bishops who don't punish sexual abuse hard enough in their dioceses. The Gemium meets until Sunday in the Vatican.

Since Pope John Paul II. In 2002, when John Paul summoned American cardinals to the Vatican for an emergency meeting on the abuse scandals, the church's approach to sexual assault has changed radically. John Paul's second successor, Francis, continues to see a need to catch up, as evidenced by the establishment of an abuse commission to put prevention measures to the test and make suggestions to the pope on how to improve them. On Saturday and Sunday it will deliberate at its first plenary session.

"We will work hard to make the church a safe place for children," promised the commission's president, Boston Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley. Francis had previously urged bishops' conferences and religious superiors worldwide to cooperate with the body. Apparently, he felt such admonishment from the highest level was necessary in some cases. In fact, not all bishops have so far heeded the pope's call to meet with abuse victims, O'Malley admitted.

Professionalizing the church's approach to prevention

The convening of the Abuse Commission last year was the first concrete result of consultations on a comprehensive reform of the Vatican Curia. About half of the 17 members, from every continent and from fields as diverse as theology, canon law, education, social sciences and psychiatry, are lay people. Women are unusually strongly represented in the committee by Vatican standards, at just under fifty percent. Unlike other Vatican bodies, English is spoken rather than Italian.

For Jesuit Hans Zollner, the commission's interdisciplinary makeup demonstrates a desire to professionalize the church's approach to abuse prevention. "I think we've made a good step toward changing the mentality," says Zollner, who serves on the panel as director of the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Recalling the mentality that prevailed for decades, according to which the good reputation of the Church was protected even at the expense of the victims, Pope Francis said on the occasion of the first meeting of the Abuse Commission. In his letter to bishops and religious superiors around the world, he stressed, "Everything must continue to be done to eradicate the scourge of sexual abuse in the church." In church offices, there was "absolutely no place for those who abuse minors".

No absolute obligation to report

While the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responsible for the prosecution of perpetrators under canon law, the new commission has a purely advisory function. "How it is implemented in the Vatican authorities has yet to be clarified," said Zollner, who is also vice rector of Gregorian University. For the Jesuit, who in 2012 for the first time organized a much-noticed abuse symposium with church and victim representatives at a papal university, the most important thing is "how to deal with bishops who do not follow canon law and the respective state laws". For there are still no clear rules as to what bishops face if they do not adhere to guidelines binding on the Catholic Church on the subject of abuse. "There must be consequences," O'Malley said Saturday at the Vatican. While the commission could not make concrete proposals, the question of how to deal with bishops who do not fulfill their duty is an important ie, he said.

In dispute over whether abuse cases should be reported to state authorities in all cases, Zollner calls for obtaining victims' consent beforehand. "There should be no absolute mandatory reporting," says the psychologist, referring to the burdens on victims who have to prove the allegations in court. "This is also what some victims of abuse and the psychologists and therapists say," Zollner emphasizes with regard to the risk of re-traumatizing the victims through the proceedings.

British abuse victim and commission member Peter Saunders also wants a more intense debate about the motives of abusers. The label "pedophile" is not enough to explain it, he says. In his opinion, celibacy and the loneliness of priests play a role. Saunders had been abused as a teenager by a priest at his school.

However, O'Malley contradicted the amption that the mandatory celibacy of Catholic priests favors abuse. Most acts happen rather in the family. Nevertheless, the church must take a closer look at candidates for the priesthood. According to the cardinal, almost all bishops' conferences around the world have so far developed and sent to the Vatican the guidelines for dealing with abuse requested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011. Only from some countries with very weak infrastructure they would still be pending.

No place for bashing

In addition to sexual abuse, the cardinal said the commission is also looking at strategies against the physical abuse of children. There is a separate working group for this. Saunders stressed that beating should have no place in today's education. Pope Francis had caused irritation at his general audience on Wednesday with a statement about beating children. She suggested that the pope approved of corporal punishment within certain limits, but not blows to the face. "I think the pope knew his words were wrong and wanted to start a discussion," Saunders opined.

To support the prevention of abuse, the Center for the Protection of Children, founded by Zollner, has moved from Munich to Rome. There he will resume his work in the middle of the month.

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Christina Cherry
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