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On suffering’s sacred ground

· ​Press briefing on the issues presented during the Meeting’s first day ·

Listening and concreteness. On these two words, so easy to pronounce and so difficult to transform into practice, the first day of the work carried out in the New Synod Hall revolved. This was confirmed in the briefing held in the late morning of Thursday, 21 February, at the Augustinianum Patristic Institute with the participation of the Archbishops of Brisbane, Mark Benedict Coleridge, and of Malta, Charles J. Scicluna, Prefect of the Department of Communications, Paolo Ruffini, the Jesuits, Fr Federico Lombardi, moderator of the Meeting, and Fr Hans Zollner, the Meeting’s Organizing Committee Representative. The interventions were moderated by the interim Director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti.

Listening and concreteness, then. In addition to the two reports given by Cardinal Tagle and Archbishop Scicluna himself, the morning of the first day of work was characterized by listening to the testimonies of the victims. Brutal, shocking stories. Nothing was spared. After listening to these accounts, no one can remain unmoved, observed Fr Zollner during the briefing, and he thanked the victims for their heartrending testimony. It is right to lay out guidelines and regulations, he noted, but is equally important to make these experiences one’s own, to assume them, to feel the need for commitment to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. These testimonies “appeal for common action” he stressed. Concrete action, precisely, but that starts from the awareness that the wounds are of the Church [who is] called not to look away but, rather, to feel the suffering with her own hands, as the meditation offered by Cardinal Tagle in his report recalled. “In order to understand the gravity of the situation, you need to listen to victims, meet them”, explained Archbishop Scicluna, “because that is sacred ground”, that of suffering, of the Cross faced by Christ, of the wounds that remain in his body even after he has risen. In the very difficult task of alleviating these wounds, Msgr Scicluna said, the bishop cannot be left alone but must face this process together with the community of the faithful. “We don’t have coercive measures”, he continued, and “we don't have any nostalgia [for] the coercive measures of the Inquisition”. He added that this means that “the jurisdiction of the State is essential”. Also because, for certain types of behaviour to be countered, such as that of child pornography on the Internet, the bishops clearly do not have any of the investigative tools that are at the disposal of State judicial bodies.

The question of the relationship between bishop and community was not by chance one of the themes that were addressed during the discussion, as Paolo Ruffini illustrated: in particular, “there was talk of how to offer help to the smaller Churches that do not have sufficient experience with these issues” he said. Some recommendations of a procedural nature were given, insisting on the issue of closeness to the victims of abuse. Some priests may find themselves in a position to escape the authority of the bishop which is limited, he observed, and for this reason collaboration with civil institutes is “all the more important”. Naturally, Fr Lombardi said, as expressed by the 21 points of reflection offered by the Pope to the participants in the Meeting, much space must be given to the theme of prevention and transparency, so that there is “easy access” on the part of the victims to persons and institutions capable of collecting complaints. Moreover, even though they are a starting point, as Fr Lombardi explained, the 21 points are a real road map which must be translated into consequent actions, and also harmonized according to different cultural contexts.

The diverse perceptions of the phenomenon of sexual abuse is a theme within the issue. In Thursday morning’s speeches, Archbishop Coleridge observed, the importance of cultural differences was clearly evident. For some countries, establishing the principle of collaboration between State and Church is in some ways a historic step. The common element, in Europe as in North America, as in Africa however, is the careful verification of the situations, to protect the victims and those who might be accused. Archbishop Scicluna noted that before the names of alleged abusers are published, accusations must be concrete and detailed. Otherwise a primitive system is triggered which is not useful to the cause. The prelate added that one can thus fall into generalizations: there is no category or profession more predisposed to crime with respect to others, he noted. As Fr Lombardi explained, it was the common opinion of the participants in the Meeting that there is no connection between abuse and celibacy of priests.

On the subject of marriages, Fr Lombardi observed that it was a surprise to see that one of the points of reflection suggested by the Pope concerned the raising of the age of marriage to 16. It is a sign of attention to the world of women, a push for cultural change within the Church also with regard to sexual maturity. Currently, Archbishop Scicluna explained, the canonical code provides for 16 years for males and 14 for females. It will have to be raised to the age of 16 for all.

Marco Bellizi

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