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Leading by example: Pope offers abuse victims open ear, open heart

Pope Francis

Leading compassion: Pope Francis has met one-on-one with survivors of abuse within the Church.
Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

MORE than a meeting and homily, Pope Francis laid out a clear road map for the Church when he celebrated Mass and welcomed abuse survivors to the Vatican.

The morning he dedicated to six men and women who had been abused by clergy was a powerful combination of upholding the importance of having the letter of the law and displaying the proper spirit behind it.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a German psychologist and psychotherapist who accompanied the two abuse survivors from Germany to the Vatican on July 7, said: “This is not only about the letter of the law. This has to come from the heart if this is to really take fruit” and make real, lasting change.

The homily/plan of action repeated calls for zero tolerance and accountability for the “despicable” crime of abuse and underlined continued commitment to vigilance in priestly formation and better policies, procedures and training for the implementation norms.

But most striking that day, some of the visiting survivors said, were not the pronouncements at Mass, but the heart that went into the patient, one-on-one listening later, in private.

While Pope Benedict XVI began the highly symbolic meetings with groups of survivors with his 2008 visit to Washington DC, Pope Francis took the practice further.

He invited survivors to the heart of the Church in Rome for a real sit-down conversation – devoid of aides and officials, for a total of two-and-a-half hours.

“The Pope gave so much time. There was no hurry, there was no clock watching. Each survivor got the time they needed to tell the Pope their story or whatever they wanted to say,” Marie Collins, who accompanied one of the two survivors from Ireland for the closed-door papal meeting, said.

“It was wonderful to see the Pope listening so intently, for the survivor to feel heard and have the opportunity to say everything they wanted to say,” Ms Collins, who is also a survivor of clerical abuse, said.

The eye contact, the silent reflection and how the Pope reacted all showed how “it must have been hugely emotional for him as well as for each of the survivors”, she said.

This seemingly simple feature of limited distractions and formalities ended up being an unexpected turning point for many of the visitors, Ms Collins said, even “life-changing” for another who later spoke to the press.

Ms Collins and Fr Zollner, both members of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said listening not just to groups but to the personal stories of individual survivors was a message to all bishops of what they should be doing in their own countries.

“Now every victim in the world can say, ‘Look, you have to do what the Pope did’,” Fr Zollner said.

Ms Collins said: “It’s a win-win situation. For the survivors it can be very healing to be listened to” and when Church leaders hear and learn more about the nature and effects of the abuse, “it can help them” in seeing what should be done.

But because what can be done and how to go about it are not always clear, dozens of Church leaders meet every year for the Anglophone Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults.

Founded in 1996, the annual conference brings together experts and Church delegates from around the globe, to share best practices and develop solid norms in the prevention and handling of the scandal of sexual abuse.

Ms Collins and Fr Zollner were among the speakers at the July 7-11 conference, which was being held in Rome the same week the Pope met with victims.

Executive director of the United States bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection Deacon Bernard Nojadera said the Anglophone conference “is like a think tank” where people can bounce ideas around and have a healthy dialogue.

US National Review Board chairman Francesco Cesareo said there can never be a “cookie-cutter approach”, because different cultures had different attitudes about how to talk about sexuality.

But, he said, common sense patterns emerged and, with input from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which dealt with sex abuse cases, the conference “brings a realistic sense of what can be done”.

Chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, said in one sense, responding to the abuse crisis should seem very simple. After all, “it is shepherding and a caring for the flock, but the milk is out of the bottle”, he said, adding, “Humpty Dumpty is broke”.

No matter what got done for victims or perpetrators, “it won’t repair the damage”, he said.

Mr Cesareo said that was why so much talk must look at the future.

“How will the Church prevent the same level of abuse? We should be prepared for the future and that’s more difficult,” he said.

“This is just planting the seeds,” Deacon Nojadera said.

Problems would still exist and some forms of abuse would happen, he said, but the Church must have “a culture that’s reliable”, where everyone knew what warning signs to look for and where to get help.

In the Church’s decades-long evolution of grappling with the reality of abuse within its own walls, Fr Zollner said laws would not matter unless there was “a whole change of culture within the Church”, one that was no longer “drawn to secrecy”, cover-ups and siding with the perpetrator, but to openness to the truth and listening to victims.

Helping Church leaders listen to survivors was key to getting leaders to see the importance of norms and enforcing them, he said.

Hearing their stories “changes your life and your attitude toward the whole issue”, he said, “if your heart is not made of stone”.

A heart hardened to human suffering and misery was one of the worst things that can happen, the Pope has said, and that was perhaps why, in his homily for victims, he prayed “for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation”.

Along with reparation, therapy and support, Fr Zollner said, “There is nothing that is more important than an open ear and an open heart, because this is the way reconciliation can start.”


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