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The Church protects minors

· Intervention of the Promoter of Justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ·

Today in Rome in Koch Hall of the Italian Senate, an international forum was held on “T he World’s Children and the Abuse of Their Rights” sponsored by the non-profit association “SOS Telefono Azzurro” and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, in collaboration with the  Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital and the Mayo Clinic in the United States. Among the various representatives who spoke was the President of the Senate, Renato Schifani, who underlined the necessity to refine the legal and legislative protection in order to strengthen the protection of minors also on the internet. We publish below an intervention given by the Promoter of Justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I am here to share with you the concerns and experience of the Roman Catholic Church in the context of what religious institutions and – more broadly – our communities can do to prevent child abuse. I have tried to distill those concerns and experiences into ten points or principles.

Any institution, global or local, seeking to develop a strategy for the protection of children and the prevention of child abuse must enshrine preeminently the principle that the well-being of the child should be the paramount concern of all. The Care and Respect of the “Innocence” of the Child. Every human person, moved by the primeval instinct of the preservation of the species and guided by right reason, would subscribe to the care and respect for the innocence of the child: that rightful expectation that a child, totally dependent on the concern of adults for his or her survival, shall be treated with dignity.  The Catholic Church, in its responsibility as depository and custodian of its founder’s will, remembers that Jesus of Nazareth extolled the dignity of the child and raised the child to the level of a model for discipleship.  This is how the Gospel of Matthew narrates the words of Jesus: «At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”» ( Mathew, 18, 1-5 ). Such persons guided by right reason will also agree that another rightful expectation is that a child will be able to spend his or her very first formative years of life in a safe loving environment.  Every child should be able to enjoy the right to a healthy upbringing without suffering discrimination on grounds of sex, race, or religion.

By way of illustration we might note here that in certain cultures the diminished respect for girls can be an unfortunate precursor to later abuse.  The education of human consciences to a generous acceptance and care of any child, whether boy or girl, as a gift of God from the very early moments of its development, is the true basis of prevention of child abuse.

We are all compelled to an honest acknowledgement and awareness of child abuse as a tragic wound to the very dignity of the human family. In the same context, the Gospel of Matthew reports the sobering words of Jesus: «Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to be scandalized, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. "Woe to the world because of scandals! For it is inevitable that scandals come, but woe to the man by whom scandal comes!"See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven» ( Matthew, 18, 6-7; 10 ).

The Catholic Church knows well that whenever one of its ministers, whether bishop, priest or deacon, or lay pastoral agent, sexually abuses a minor, a tragic wound is inflicted on the community; subordinated at it is by the indescribably repugnant damage done to the child.  Such conduct is reproachable on various counts. Most importantly: it inflicts untold damage to the normal sexual development, self-esteem and human dignity  of the minor concerned; it is cause of scandal to Christians and non-Christians alike, a stumbling-block on many a pilgrim’s progress in faith; it invariably constitutes an abuse and a betrayal of the sacred trust which the people of God rightly have of their shepherds; it damages the credibility of the Church and taints the beauty of Her testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; it discredits the ministerial priesthood and puts countless innocent clerics and pastoral agents under the shadow of delinquency, crime and misdemeanour.

In communities where authority is held in high esteem, including communities where sacred power is exercised, empowerment of children and families becomes an essential aspect of prevention of abuse. In his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, dated 19 March 2010, Pope Benedict XVI had this to tell parents: «In today’s world it is not easy to build a home and to bring up children. They deserve to grow up in security, loved and cherished, with a strong sense of their identity and worth. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person, to be inspired by the truth of our Catholic faith and to learn ways of behaving and acting that lead to healthy self-esteem and lasting happiness. This noble but demanding task is entrusted in the first place to you, their parents. I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments».

The first step in empowerment of children and families is education. The child needs to be made aware of his or her proper dignity.  Children need to be taught, according to their age and mental prowess, to protect themselves from the unjust intrusions of others. Families and local communities need to be educated in the care of the young among them. It is so sad and indeed so tragic that much of the abuse of children is family-based. Parents need to be able to detect signs of abuse at an early stage. They need to know how best to react to abuse, avoiding a defeatist attitude of resignation and inertia.

The second step in empowerment is the ability to verbalize and disclose abuse. The duty and right to disclose abuse to higher authority is incumbent on the parents or tutors of the minors concerned. Where ministers of religion are concerned disclosure may be complicated by ill-informed and misplaced considerations of  loyalty and belonging.  Sacred power rightly generates sacred trust. Unfortunately and wrongly it may generate fear to disclose crimes by religious leaders. The empowerment of the community in this context means the ability to denounce abuse of sacred power for what it is: a betrayal of trust.

Global institutions, including religious communities, should offer leadership in the formation and screening pastoral agents. I would like to quote the relevant section from The Circular Letter to assist Episcopal Conferences in developing guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by clerics published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the signature of the Prefect Cardinal William Levada and the Secretary Archbishop Ladaria on 3 May 2011: «In 2002, Pope John Paul II stated, "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young" (n. 3 , Address to the American Cardinals , 23 April 2002). These words call to mind the specific responsibility of Bishops and Major Superiors and all those responsible for the formation of future priests and religious. The directions given in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis as well as the instructions of the competent Dicasteries of the Holy See take on an even greater importance in assuring a proper discernment of vocations as well as a healthy human and spiritual formation of candidates. In particular, candidates should be formed in an appreciation of chastity and celibacy, and the responsibility of the cleric for spiritual fatherhood. Formation should also assure that the candidates have an appreciation of the Church’s discipline in these matters. More specific directions can be integrated into the formation programs of seminaries and houses of formation through the respective Ratio institutionis sacerdotalis of each nation, Institute of Consecrated Life and Society of Apostolic Life. Particular attention, moreover, is to be given to the necessary exchange of information in regard to those candidates to priesthood or religious life who transfer from one seminary to another, between different dioceses, or between religious Institutes and dioceses».

Pastoral Agents and persons in leadership are naturally held to a very high standard of conduct. Institutions need to adopt clear Codes of Conduct that establish clear boundaries in professional relations between pastoral agents and people who approach them in a professional capacity.  These Codes of Conduct need to specify in a clear way the consequences of misconduct.

On 30 April 2001, Pope John Paul II promulgated the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela (Sst), a special law, by which sexual abuse of a minor under 18 years of age committed by a cleric was included in the list of more grave crimes ( delicta graviora ) reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cdf). Prescription for this delict was fixed at 10 years beginning at the completion of the 18th year of the victim. The norm of the motu proprio applied both to Latin and Eastern clerics, as well as for diocesan and religious clergy. In 2003, cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Cdf, obtained from Pope John Paul II the concession of some special faculties in order to provide greater flexibility in conducting penal processes for these more grave delicts. These measures included the use of the administrative penal process, and, in more serious cases, a request for dismissal from the clerical state ex officio . These faculties have now been incorporated in the revision of the motu proprio approved by the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, on 21 May 2010. In the new norms prescription, in the case of abuse of minors, is set for 20 years calculated from the completion of the 18th year of age of the victim. In individual cases, the Cdf is able to derogate from prescription when indicated. The canonical delict of acquisition, possession or distribution of pedopornography is also specified in this revised motu proprio (cf. SST art. 6 §1, n. 2). As from May 2011, a person who habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor for purposes of the canonical delict of sexual abuse of a minor (cf. Sst art. 6, §1, n.1).

Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict or a breach of a Code of Conduct internal to an institution, whether it be religious or other. It is also a crime prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority within their responsibilities. The Cdf Circular Letter (3 May 2011) further specifies: «without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum (the seal of confession), the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures».

A further point is the need for institutions to care for the victims and the perpetrators of abuse. This care is also intrinsically linked to the task of prevention.  We know how often abuse generates further abuse across generations. We also know that if the perpetrator of abuse is left to his or her own devices the risk of reoffending is very high. In his Address to the Irish Bishops on 28 October 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave a succinct and compelling account of the response which the Catholic Church needed to give to the problem: « In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes ».  In his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland (19 March 2010), Pope Benedict XVI also addressed perpetrators of abuse:  «I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God’s forgiveness and the grace of true amendment. By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God’s justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy».

Institutions concerned with the misconduct of their Agents are faced with the dilemma of what future role, if any, they should give to perpetrators of abuse. The welfare of children and of the community must be the paramount criterion in decisions concerning such personnel. Perpetrators who are not able to observe set boundaries forfeit their right to roles of stewardship in the community.

We are all on a learning curve. Institutions, including Churches, will do well to show openness to research and development in the field of prevention of child abuse.  We all have a great deal to learn from psychology, sociology and the forensic sciences. All this does not dispense us from the duty to undertake an honest analysis of what went wrong in tragic cases where stewardship was lacking and the response to child abuse was inadequate because of misplaced concerns for the good name of the institutions we represent.

No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Bishops of Ireland in no uncertain terms in 2010: « Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily. For them, in the words of Saint Augustine, you are a bishop; yet with them you are called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Sermon 340, 1). I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock. In particular, I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Set them an example by your own lives, be close to them, listen to their concerns, offer them encouragement at this difficult time and stir up the flame of their love for Christ and their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters. The lay faithful, too, should be encouraged to play their proper part in the life of the Church. See that they are formed in such a way that they can offer an articulate and convincing account of the Gospel in the midst of modern society (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and cooperate more fully in the Church’s life and mission. This in turn will help you once again become credible leaders and witnesses to the redeeming truth of Christ » (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 March 2010, § 11).

I entrust my concluding words to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 19: «Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away » ( Matthew, 19, 13 – 15).

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