Thursday 17 October 2019

Survivors denounce 'evil' of sex abuse at Vatican summit

Irish priest claims scandal a 'toxic river that runs through the Church'

Listening: High-ranking clergy from around the world gather yesterday in the Vatican. Photo: Reuters
Listening: High-ranking clergy from around the world gather yesterday in the Vatican. Photo: Reuters

Sarah Mac Donald and Nicole Winfield

The day began with an African woman telling an extraordinary gathering of Catholic leaders that a priest rapist forced her to have three abortions over a dozen years after he started violating her at age 15. It ended with a Colombian cardinal warning clergy they could all face prison if they let such crimes go unpunished.

In between, Pope Francis began charting a new course for the Catholic Church to confront the "evil" of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up, a scandal that has consumed his papacy and threatens the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy at large.

Opening a first-ever Vatican summit on preventing abuse, Francis warned 190 bishops and religious superiors their flocks were demanding concrete action, not just words, to punish predator priests and keep children safe. He offered them 21 proposals to consider going forward, some obvious and easy to adopt, others requiring new laws. But his main point in summoning the hierarchy to the Vatican for a four-day tutorial was to impress upon them that clerical sex abuse is not confined to the US or Ireland, but a global scourge that requires a concerted, global response.

"Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice," Francis told the gathering.

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia, and 20 years after it hit the US, bishops and Catholic officials in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny sex abuse by clergy exists in their regions or play down the problem.

The tone for the summit was set with victims from five continents talking of the trauma of their abuse and the additional pain the Church's indifference caused them.

"You are the 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," Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz told the bishops in his videotaped testimony.

Other survivors were not identified, including the woman from Africa who said she was "so young" when her priest started raping her.

"He gave me everything I wanted when I accepted to have sex; otherwise he would beat me," she told the bishops. "I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives."

Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up as he responded. Tagle demanded bishops no longer turn a blind eye to the harm caused by clergy who rape and molest.

In the final speech of the day, Colombian Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez warned his brother bishops they could face not only canonical sanctions but also imprisonment if they failed to properly deal with allegations.

Irish victims have said they do not have high hopes for the summit because it will not address the "bigger problem" of the Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality and its male-dominated hierarchy.

Dublin parish priest Fr Joe McDonald - one of six survivors of abuse who met Pope Francis last August in Ireland - said the issue of sexual abuse "is part of a toxic river that runs through the Church".

He told the Irish Independent the summit was "well intentioned" and he believed the "Pope is genuinely agonising" over the abuse crisis and wanted to effect change.

However, he added: "The odds are stacked against it. It is set up for failure precisely because of the things that have contributed to getting us where we are."

These included the Church continuing to "operate as a male dominated hierarchical church", as well as its teachings on sexuality and that it is "still stuck in the paranoid position, lashing out to blame others" which, he said, was "reprehensible".

Fr McDonald also hit out at the organisers over the "crucial voices missing" from the summit, including those of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and survivor Marie Collins.

Irish Independent

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