· Vatican City ·

Interview with the President and Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

‘We want children to be safe’

 ‘We want children to be safe’  ING-010
08 March 2024

The President for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, says trust is necessary for the Church to succeed in evangelization. “We’ve been very blessed by the extraordinary commitment of the members of the Commission”, the pcpm President told Vatican News in an interview following the Commission’s audience with the Holy Father on Thursday, 7 March. The Cardinal emphasized the value of lay members of the Commission, especially women, as well as the important contributions of victims and their parents.

During your audience with Pope Francis, he spoke about the 10-year anniversary of the creation of the Commission. What would you say are the achievements of the Commission in these past ten years?

[Cardinal Seán O’Malley] I think we’ve been very blessed by the extraordinary commitment of the members of the Commission who’ve come together, very credentialed people committed to safeguarding, even a former prime minister of Poland. And half of the commission has always been women, and women and laity are going to be a very important part of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis and to promote safeguarding in the Church. We’ve always had victims and parents of victims, and their contribution has been so, so important.

You know we’ve been involved in advising the Holy Father in the beginning, and in the beginning, we were the first ones to take the victims for him to meet with, and it’s something that he has done continuously since then. We have made many recommendations about the accountability of bishops, and out of that has come [Come una] madre amorevole and Vos estis [lux mundi]. We suggested the summit of all the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences, and the Holy Father did that five years ago. So, I think there are many accomplishments. And in the last few years we’ve expanded so much now that we have regional committees working in the various continental areas, and we have been able to expand with the help of funding from Catholic agencies to have staff in those regions.

One of the things that we’re doing is the Memorare initiative which is trying to help particularly countries where they don’t have the human and material resources for these kinds of programs. Having been a missionary bishop myself in the Caribbean, I understand what that’s like. And so, the Memorare initiative has been a way for us to be much more visible and present in the regions, and to be seen, I think, by the Bishops’ Conferences, as partners, not as adversaries in trying to deal with implanting a culture of safeguarding in these young Churches. We’ve also been able to help secure funding for these Churches, because having the personnel in place to do the training and the screening and the pastoral outreach to victims is all so important. In the last few years, that initiative has been extraordinary.

The Holy Father has asked us to do an annual report to kind of take the temperature of what’s happening in the Church over the past year. And that also has been very good — even just the collection of data, because there is so little accurate data out there, and to be able to identify where the Church has been successful and where we are still falling short. So, I think that the Commission has accomplished a lot.

Can the Church respond better to cases of abuse?

[Cardinal O’Malley] Right now, we’re very much focused on the global south to make sure that people have the resources and the training. We’ve done an awful lot in the area of policies and guidelines. You know, part of the problem in the past has been people improvising, and this is such a complicated issue, regarding the rights of the victim, the accused, the community, the civil government, the Church.

So, if you’re going to improvise, you’re going to commit a lot of mistakes, and so having very good policies and making sure that those are published and learned.

The need for a huge educational campaign everywhere around issues of safeguarding is so important. I always encourage them in countries where they’re just starting to really begin to lead with prevention, because that helps people to understand what this is about. We want children to be safe. We want the children and the parents to have confidence that when their children are in a Catholic school or in a Catholic parish, that they are safe. So, there are many challenges and of course more recently we see the need to be more aware of the question of vulnerable adults and how to deal with these issues in religious communities and in dioceses throughout the world.

There are still many challenges there. There are a lot of people who are in denial, who think, ‘Oh, this isn’t our problem, this is an American problem…’ but we know it’s a human problem. Some people think that this is a distraction from our mission of evangelization, but as I always say, we will not be able to be successful in our mission to evangelize if we do not have the trust of people, if we cannot prove to them that they’re important to us and the safety of their children is a priority for us.

One of the things that Pope Francis spoke about in the audience was that he’s asked the Commission to ensure compliance with ‘Vos estis’. How is the Commission contributing to making sure things like ‘Vos estis’ — and ‘Madre amorevole’ as well — are responding to that duty from the Holy Father and the needs of victims?

[Cardinal O’Malley] We try to respond as best we can to victims by trying to put them in contact with the Dicastery, Nunciature, or safeguarding office or whoever might be able to help them. Certainly, listening to the voice of the victims is a very important part of what our mission is, and we have had various victim advisory groups in different parts of the globe who have been very helpful to us to understand what their experiences have been, so that we can try and address those in our work on guidelines and our advice to the Holy Father. Our initiative, the Memorare initiative, is precisely to help the local Churches have in place a way to respond to victims, as well as prevention and trainings, but that’s always a very important part of what we’re doing there.

How many countries have we entered into relationships with?

[Fr Andrew Small] I think we have about 14 memorandums now with national Bishops’ Conferences, and we asked them to do that in union with the local Conferences of religious men and women, so that they have what we call a ‘One Church’ approach. Then, they basically agree to work with us through this memorandum which we all publish on our website, to try and build up the structures necessary. The Holy Father focused on that welcome of victims and those who have accusations in article 2 of Vos estis, which was in fact reinforced in the definitive version — that every Diocese should have an office where people can come. That’s obviously difficult for those who are resource poor and don’t have all of those experts. The Holy Father said that, again, you should have qualified experts who are working with you when you welcome victims. So, we’re helping to fix that and that’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re making great strides. I think we find there’s great openness amongst Bishops who at times just, unfortunately, don’t know how to put this in place and they’re looking for the sort of resources that we’re offering.

The Pope has called for closeness and listening to victims. Many victims are calling especially for greater transparency at every stage of the process. How can the Church respond?

[Cardinal O’Malley] One of the things we recommended to the Holy Father was to make changes in this papal secrecy. And certainly one of the things we are discussing is how announcements are made when bishops are removed, if they are really removed and it’s not presented as a retirement. So, yes, transparency is very, very important. And trust cannot be restored unless we have transparency at all levels in the Church.

[Fr Small] I think we were talking to recently one of some of our members from Western Europe where the question of child sex abuse in the Church has a long history now even in the United States, but in parts of Western Europe it’s even longer. We think about the Irish context where there’s been a lot of remuneration and reparations paid. But even after 20 years the evaluation seems to be that what people want more than anything else is to be told the truth. It certainly lingers with people who have often lived with a secret, a very embarrassing secret for people. Unfortunately, they live with a lot of shame as if in some way they were part of the problem, and we know that that’s not the case. They often live with it for 20-30 years, and by the time they do reveal that to a loved one or do come forward and make a claim on the Church’s justice system it’s long after the abuse has taken place, and for all that time they’ve been thinking about what happened to them. And then they think about the people who weren’t there for them whom they feel should have been and then they maybe find out that somebody was notified or that the priest disappeared overnight. I think this leads to a nagging sense of ‘Why did this have to happen to me? And when is somebody going to come clean and tell me the truth?’ I think people can be forgiving, very forgiving of the weaknesses of others. We know that most abuse is in families, and that’s another place where there’s a lot of secrets and history and things that people didn’t know when they were children. But when it comes to the Church, I think people do have a right to be told the truth. Sometimes maybe as leaders we’re afraid of trusting people with the truth, but we can’t be. If we don’t trust people with the truth, they won’t trust us. I think that’s sort of the frontier around transparency and honesty and openness that we sort of need to work on a lot more.

In 2019, the Pope convened a meeting of the presidents of all the Bishops’ Conferences of the world, committing the Church to greater responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Five years on, how is the Church doing?

[Cardinal O’Malley] I think the summit was a huge step forward. [It] wasn’t a panacea, but it was a very clarion call to all bishops to realize their responsibility. One of the other things that we’ve been involved in, in ongoing ways historically, is preparation of bishops, when they come to the course for bishops here after they’ve been named. There is always a section on safeguarding, and it’s been my privilege a number of times to lead that and to take victims with me. Invariably, when I have had those trainings, these new bishops come to me afterwards and say, ‘Cardinal, this was the most important thing that we heard all week.’ And I tell them, you know, I became a bishop 40 years ago, and there weren’t any courses for us. But if my generation of bishops had had the advantage to hear some of these things about safeguarding, I think the recent history of the Church would be much different. And I feel very confident that so many of these new bishops that have been ordained in the last decade or so have come into this with a great sense of seriousness and their responsibility to be a father, not just to their priests, but to the victims and to all their people, and to see safeguarding as a priority. That is among the most important things that the Church can do.

Your Eminence, do you have a final word or thought perhaps for the faithful and for victims who might read this interview?

[Cardinal O’Malley] Certainly. As we have said many times, the most important part of our mission is to try to be a voice for the victims and to work hard so that this will be a priority everywhere in the Church. Evangelization will be an impossible task if we can’t restore people’s trust in us by proving to people that their children are our priority and their safety is our highest goal.

By Christopher Wells