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Vatican summit opens with acknowledgment of evil committed

In recorded testimonies, abuse survivors exposed the 'cancer' of clergy sex abuse

VATICAN CITY -- Opening the Vatican summit on child protection and the clerical sexual abuse crisis, Pope Francis said, "The holy people of God are watching and are awaiting from us not simple, predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures" to stop abuse.

The summit meeting Feb. 21-24 brought together almost 190 Church leaders: the presidents of national bishops' conferences, the heads of the Eastern Catholic churches, superiors of some men's and women's religious orders and top Vatican officials.

In his brief opening remarks, the pope prayed that with "docility" to the Holy Spirit, the bishops at the summit would "listen to the cry of the little ones who ask for justice."

Pope Francis attended the opening session of the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church at the Vatican Feb. 21.
Photo Credit: Evandro Inetti | pool
The pope's main address to the assembly was scheduled for Feb. 24 after the discussions, a penitential liturgy and a concluding Mass.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, gave the first formal talk of the gathering, acknowledging how Church leaders for so long ignored the suffering of the victims of clerical sexual abuse and covered up the evil crimes of the priest-perpetrators.

Sometimes, he said, bishops were simply afraid to look at the wounds caused by their priests, but he insisted that one cannot profess faith in Christ while ignoring the wounds inflicted on the people Jesus loves.

Using the Gospel stories of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, especially the story of Jesus inviting St. Thomas to put his hands into the wounds on Jesus' hands and side, Cardinal Tagle told the bishops, "Those who are sent to proclaim the core of our Christian faith -- the dying and rising of Christ -- can only do so with authenticity if they are constantly in touch with the wounds of humanity."

The Christian faith itself and the ability of the Catholic Church to proclaim the Gospel is "what is at stake in this moment of crisis brought about by the abuse of children and our poor handling of these crimes," the cardinal said.

But, he asked, "how do we as bishops, who have been part of the wounding, now promote healing?"

First, the cardinal said, the bishops must "draw close to their wounds and acknowledge our faults" and then take concrete steps to ensure all children and vulnerable adults are safe in the Church's care.

Justice for the victims is an absolute necessity, he said, but justice by itself "does not heal the broken human heart."

The Church can never ask victims to forgive and move on -- "no, far from it," the cardinal said.

But, knowing that forgiveness often aids healing, he said, Church leaders must "continue to walk with those profoundly wounded by abuse, building trust, providing unconditional love and repeatedly asking forgiveness in the full recognition that we do not deserve that forgiveness in the order of justice, but can only receive it when it is bestowed as a gift and grace."

Exposing the 'cancer' of abuse

"Every time I refused to have sex with him, he would beat me," an abuse survivor from Africa told Pope Francis and bishops attending the Vatican summit on child protection and the abuse crisis.

The meeting began Feb. 21 with the harrowing stories of survivors of sexual abuse, cover-up and rejection by Church officials.

The pre-recorded testimonies of five survivors were broadcast in the synod hall; the Vatican did not disclose their names, but only whether they were male or female and their country of origin.

In the first testimony, a man from Chile expressed the pain he felt when, after reporting his abuse to the Church, he was treated "as a liar" and told that "I and others were enemies of the Church."

"You are physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed -- in some cases -- into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith," he said.

Comparing the abuse crisis to a cancer in the Church, the survivor said that "it is not enough to remove the tumor and that's it," but there must be measures to "treat the whole cancer."

He said he prayed that those who "want to continue to cover up" would leave the Church, giving greater space "to those who want to a create a new Church, a renewed Church and a Church absolutely free from sexual abuse."

A woman from Africa recalled the humiliation and suffering she endured when she was sexually and physically abused by a priest beginning when she was 15; he made her pregnant three times and each time forced her to have an abortion.

"At first, I trusted him so much that I did not know he could abuse me. I was afraid of him and every time I refused to have sex with him, he would beat me," she said. "And since I was completely dependent on him economically, I suffered all the humiliations he inflicted on me."

"It must be said that priests and religious have a way of helping and at the same time also destroying," she said. "They have to behave like leaders, wise people."

Another testimony was offered by a 53-year-old priest from Eastern Europe who, although grateful to God for his vocation, continues to bear not only the wounds of the abuse he suffered as teenager but also the wounds of the rejection he experienced after reporting it to his bishop.

Initially, the bishop did not respond at all, so, the priest said, he reported the abuse to the nuncio.

When he finally did meet the bishop, he recalled, "he attacked me without trying to understand me, and this hurt me."

"What would I like to say to the bishops?" the priest asked. "That they listen to these people, that they learn to listen to the people who speak. I wanted someone to listen to me, to know who that man is, that priest, and what he does."

A U.S. survivor told the bishops that what wounded him the most "was the total loss of the innocence of my youth and how that has affected me today."

"There's still pain in my family relationships," he said. "There's still pain with my siblings. I still carry pain. My parents still carry pain at the dysfunction, the betrayal, the manipulation that this bad man, who was our Catholic priest at the time, wrought upon my family and myself."

The Church, he added, needs leadership, vision and courage from bishops to fight the scourge of abuse and "to work for resolution, and work for healing and work for a better Church."

The final testimony was delivered by man from Asia who said he was "abused over 100 times" and continues to endure "traumas and flashbacks" that have caused him difficulty in living his life and connecting with other people.

Bishops and heads of religious orders, he said, must take concrete action to ensure that clergy members who abused are punished.

"I ask the bishops that they be clear on this matter because this is one of the time bombs occurring in the Church in Asia. If they want to save the Church, we have to work together and make the perpetrators give themselves up," he said.

"As Jesus always said, we need to 'be like children,' not sexual abusers of children."

Grasping the magnitude of the crisis

At a briefing with journalists Feb. 21, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said that although he had listened to many survivors and their stories of abuse, he was nevertheless "surprised at the way tears, as it were, welled up."

"I had never heard them in the extraordinary context of this gathering and, frankly, in the presence of the pope," Archbishop Coleridge said. "So, the setting itself added a whole new power and, in a sense, another dimension to hearing these voices that spoke very briefly, but very powerfully and very deeply and struck just the right note on the first morning of -- not just a meeting -- this journey of exploration."

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who handles abuse cases as adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he and the other bishops at the summit "were all quite taken by the testimony of the different victims."

"We could hear voices that were emotional, powerful and, I think, we needed to hear victims. I have always said that in order to understand the gravity of the situation, you need to listen to victims, we need them, because that is sacred ground," Archbishop Scicluna told journalists.

Gathering the voices and experiences of survivors was no easy task, but it was necessary for bishops to grasp the magnitude of the crisis as well as the damage survivors have and continue to endure, said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a professor of psychology and president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Bishops, he said, needed to listen "to survivors and victims from all continents, in different languages so it becomes clear that this is not a North American or Central European problem. They were searing, brutal, honest testimonies and nothing was spared."

-- Cindy Wooden and Junno Arocho Esteves of Catholic News Service contributed to this story.

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