Responding Compassionately, Truthfully and Thoroughly, Part I, The Anchor, April 23, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
April 23, 2010

Concentration on the Church’s response to the evil of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy has continued unabated. In the past week, among other headlines, there has been much attention given to Pope Benedict’s meeting with victims of clergy abuse during his apostolic trip to Malta as well as to retired Vatican Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos’ 2001 letter to a French bishop praising him for not turning an abusive priest over to civil authorities. Each deserves deeper analysis.

Pope Benedict’s April 18 private meeting with eight Maltese victims of priestly sexual abuse (see story on p. 2) showed yet again how moving and important these encounters are, first for those who have suffered abuse, second, for the Pope, and third for the whole Church internally and externally.

In meeting with the press after the meeting, two of the victims described how the pope had tears in his eyes as he listened to each of their stories, expressed his shame and embarrassment over what they had suffered, prayed with them and for them, and pledged to do all that he can to ensure that others will not have to suffer as they did.

The same impact occurred in April 2008, when the Pope met with five U.S. victims in Washington. After that pilgrimage, a Marist poll revealed that, far and away, Americans thought that the “most meaningful part” of the papal trip was this private encounter with those who had suffered. A similar response occurred in July 2008, when Pope Benedict met with three Australian survivors in Sydney during World Youth Day.

Why are these encounters so powerful? It’s because what the vast majority of victims, Catholics and the world at large most long for is to see the Church at the highest level of all treat those who have been hurt by those in the Church with the compassion with which everyone knows Christ would treat them. They want to witness a true spiritual father weeping over the pain his children have endured. They want to hear him ask them for forgiveness for what those in the Church have done to them. They want to know that he is as ashamed, embarrassed, horrified and resolved as he should be, and as most Catholics are. They want to see that he treats those who innocently suffered what no one should ever endure with personal care, attention and love, rather than— as some other prelates and chancery officials have abominably looked at them —as a statistic, a problem, or worst of all, an adversary. They want to know that the pope is indeed a holy father, whose heart is pierced with sorrow, and the fitting representative of a God they believe must be weeping, too.

This is what they experience when they meet with Pope Benedict one-on-one, and that’s why so much healing is able to take place.

Such meetings are obviously not a sufficient response on the part of the Church to the evil that was done, but they clearly are one of the most important and demonstrably powerful parts of what the Church’s response has to be. That’s why it is almost inexplicable that they have taken place so infrequently. What should have always been clear a priori, but is even clearer now a posteriori after the first three such meetings, is that such private encounters should be something that the pope and diocesan bishops should do promptly and regularly. At a personal level, it’s clear that it is enormously cathartic to those who have suffered sexual abuse by clergy. It is also indisputable that it’s enormously important for Church leaders to hear from those who have suffered abuse the pains they have endured; for any pastor with a Christian heart, this should be sufficient to motivate him to overturn any structures or mentalities that hinder protecting children and bringing survivors justice. At the level of society as a whole, the less such meetings occur, the more people are prone to believe that the Church is responding to this scandal the way politicians, or defense attorneys, or CEOs normally do; the more such meetings occur, the more people will see the Church acting as the Church always should and is rightly expected to behave.

The second item in the news was the publication of a 2001 letter from the former Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy to Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux, France, in which Cardinal Castrillon praised Bishop Pican for not turning in an abusive priest from his diocese to the civil authorities. The bishop eventually was sentenced to three months in jail for refusing to denounce his priest, but the sentence was suspended. Cardinal Castrillon applauded Pican because he “preferred prison to denouncing his son, a priest.”

Some members of the secular media immediately portrayed the letter as a Vatican approval of episcopal silence and cover-ups — all the more so when Cardinal Castrillon claimed to have Pope John Paul II’s authorization to send the letter — but the truth is more complicated. The Vatican policy at the time, as Monsignor Charles Scicluna, now the Vatican’s chief prosecutor of sex abuse cases, described in an interview last month, was not to “force bishops to denounce their own priests, but to encourage them to contact the victims and invite them to denounce the priests by whom they have been abused.” In a way similar to court systems exempt spouses from testifying against each other, the Vatican recognized that the inherent conflict for a bishop to become an agent of the civil authorities in turning over priests, who have always been looked upon in Church theology, law and practice as their spiritual sons. The Vatican wasn’t trying to cover up justice, but seeking to preserve the good of a filial relationship between bishops and priests.

One of the consequences of the 2002 Dallas reforms, which mandated U.S. bishops to report all allegations of sexual abuse to the civil authorities, has been that this bond between priests and bishops has in fact been wounded, as various priestly magazines and organizations have noted. Priests who need help no longer feel confident in approaching their bishop directly and confidentially for fear of being turned in; if they’re accused, they no longer feel comfortable telling the whole truth. Often now in such circumstances the conversation between bishops and priests accused of sex abuse often takes place in the presence of civil attorneys on both sides. This is what Cardinal Castrillon was trying to avoid.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the good of preserving the bond between bishops and priests is not sufficient to justify Cardinal Castrillon’s approach. It neglected the greater good of making sure that children, the bishops’ other spiritual sons and daughters, are kept safe from molestation by their perverted older brothers camouflaged in religious garb. The defects in this approach are obvious: in some cases the bishops did not do their job and encourage the victims to go forward to the civil authorities; sometimes when they did, the victims did not want to go forward. The result was, in some cases, the priests were not prevented from continuing to do harm, either in ecclesial or other contexts.

The Vatican recognized the problem in the approach in 2001 and, as Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi noted in a shockingly direct statement last week, that explains “how opportune it was” to take the sex abuse cases out of the hands of Cardinal Castrillon and place them into the hands of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who wanted to “assure their rigorous and coherent management.” Protecting the filial relationship between priests and bishops is an important good, but not the highest priority: protecting God’s and the bishops’ smaller and more vulnerable children is a much greater one, which is something that Cardinal Ratzinger realized much earlier and with greater conviction than many of his Vatican colleagues.