“Put the victims first” was the message from the worldwide meeting of the presidents of bishops’ conferences held in Rome in February this year on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”.
Wellington Cardinal John Dew, who attended the meeting on behalf of New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference president Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn, gave a briefing to Auckland priests about what was discussed in Rome and how what came out of that meeting could help them deal with victims of clerical sexual abuse.
Cardinal Dew’s briefing also raised points that may be taken up by the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions. Public hearings are set to begin late this year.
The cardinal said there were three themes in the Rome meeting: responsibility, accountability and transparency.
The first day dealt with the topic of responsibility.
Cardinal Dew spoke on Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s presentation, particularly, the point of “continual accompaniment in solidarity”.
“That whole theme of walking with people, it’s very much the theme of Pope Francis. Accompanying people, pastorally journeying with them in whatever is going on in their lives. Cardinal Tagle was saying this is the best thing we can do for people. Walk with them, don’t abandon them. Support them in whatever ways we can,” Cardinal Dew stressed.
Cardinal Dew also highlighted Cardinal Tagle’s point about being tempted to choose between the victim and the perpetrator.
Cardinal Dew said the Manila cardinal offered several questions for reflection, among which was how could we keep an accurate view of forgiveness, while striving for justice?
Cardinal Dew also talked on key points raised by Malta Archbishop Charles Scicluna. Archbishop Scicluna said it is essential that the community is advised that they have the duty and the right to report on sexual misconduct to a contact person in the diocese or religious order and that contact details should be available.
Cardinal Dew said Pope Francis’ motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You are the Light of the World) “made it mandatory
for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of sexual abuse to Church authorities”. The motu proprio was published on May 7 and took effect on June 1.
“It’s essential that everybody knows that they have a responsibility to make sure that people are safe,” Cardinal Dew said.
Abuse and Clericalism
During his talk to the Auckland priests, Cardinal Dew acknowledged clerical sexual abuse is a difficult topic
“Our first reaction may be, as it was mine many years ago, ‘I didn’t cause this. Why should I have to face it?’,” he said.
But as a woman speaker pointed out in Rome, neither did Pope Francis, but the Pope had the courage to face it head on, the Wellington cardinal said.
“This issue needs to be spoken about by everyone. If we don’t, the clerical attitude in the Church will continue and abuse will continue. That means we also need to think about ‘clericalism’,” he said.
Cardinal Dew said Bombay Cardinal Oswald Gracias raised an important point about cultivating a culture of “correctio fraterna”, which is engaging in an open conversation with brother bishops or priests when there is problematic behaviour.
“Do we actually have our eye out for each other? Do we step out and see if we can help in some way? Because it’s all connected to the way we behave as priests,” Cardinal Dew said.
Turning point for women
Cardinal Dew observed that the meeting in Rome seemed to be a turning point for the Church in the way women are included in the dialogue.
Professor Linda Ghisoni, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Laity, Life and Family stressed talking about abuse and understanding one’s responsibility “is not a fixation, but a necessity”.
Sr Veronica Openibo, SHCJ, talked about having courageous conversations on the topic as well as her worries about young seminarians being treated as though they were special, “encouraging them to assume from the beginning of
their training, exalted ideas about their status”.
Valentina Alazraki, a journalist in Rome for 45 years, spoke on how transparency is indispensable in the fight against sexual abuse of minors by men of the Church.
Cardinal Dew recalled one bishop asked a question in the question-and-answer portion to one of the women, but that bishop was patronising. Pope Francis immediately shut that bishop down.
“I thought this guy was going to be crawling under the table by this time because he was really being put on the spot. [Pope Francis] said you don’t speak to the women in the Church like this. This is why we’ve got women protesting
against the Church,” Cardinal Dew recounted.
Cardinal Dew said German Cardinal Reinhard Marx made a strong pitch for good administration, which essentially means good record-keeping.
“We are going to be asked [by the royal commission] about all sorts of records, about how priests were appointed, when they were appointed, when they went here, when they went
there. His (Cardinal Marx) point about having clear records, traceable records or transparent records is going to be very important to us,” Cardinal Dew said.
“Keep your own diaries. Don’t throw them away. If you keep an electronic diary, print it off as well. It can be very important to prove where you were at a certain date. And certainly, if there are false allegations, it is much easier to prove whether you were there or not,” he added.
Cardinal Dew also shared practical tips given by Ms Alazraki, who said the press can either be allies or enemies of the Church, depending on whether the Church is of the abusers or the victims.
In the New Zealand setting, Cardinal Dew advised Auckland priests that, when approached by the media, they “should refer to Bishop Dunn or the appropriate people”.
“If it is a question about the royal commission, we have set up a group of people, Te Ropu Tautauko, to assist us with all matters to do with the commission,” he said.
Cardinal Dew said the media cannot be fobbed off. “Always be careful not to give the impression that you are hiding something. It is important to follow up on requests for information and to react quickly. If you don’t know, ask. But don’t become the expert yourself,” he said.
Cardinal Dew admitted the meeting had “all been a lot to take in”.
He said he was even more stunned when the news of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for historical abuse came out. However, while celebrating a Mass for the Sisters of Mercy back in New Zealand, Cardinal Dew was struck by a line from a hymn they had sung that was titled“There is a time for everything”.
“That line is ‘There is never a time for hope to die’,” the cardinal said.
“While we may have some major challenges and while we are preparing for the royal commission, when we think about all these materials and the Church is going through these hard times, a time I think is necessary for us,” he said, “let’s remember: there is never a time for hope to die. Those words helped me to put these all in context.”