Sexual abuse in the Church. The deep wound

The entire Church is shocked by the reality of sexual abuse committed by some of its members in recent decades. Despite the fact that more than half of the abuses suffered by minors in the world take place within the family, the Church is committed to the path of responding for the crimes committed and healing the wound that these crimes have left on the victims, their families and all the faithful. 

Maria José Atienza-March 14, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes

"Only by facing the truth of these cruel behaviors and humbly seeking forgiveness from victims and survivors can the Church find the way to once again be seen with confidence as a place of welcome and safety for those in need." With these words Pope Francis addressed the participants in the meeting Our common mission to protect God's children, organized in September 2021 by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Bishops' Conferences of Central and Eastern Europe. 

Indeed, the terrible reality of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people by consecrated persons, priests or in Church environments, is one of the most serious wounds of the mystical body of Christ. 

"A single case of abuse is already too much." as some bishops and representatives of the Church in Spain have repeated in their last messages. Just one, a "simple case" is not "simple" nor is it a "case". In every abuse there are victims, people with a shattered life and trust, and victimizers. In the area of abuse committed by persons of special consecration in the Church, not only is the victimizer part of the Church, but also the victim. Each abused person is also a child of God and part of the Church, and as such, the Church is doubly wounded. The Catholic Church has been smitten to her very core by these behaviors that deform and deeply wound her. The healing and reparation for these crimes will therefore be painful, long and shared by the whole Church.  The social wound 

Although the social and media spotlight on these criminal actions has been placed almost exclusively on the ecclesiastical sphere, especially the Catholic one, the general data on the sexual abuse of minors show that we are facing a general problem in society, which also has a chilling incidence in the closest sphere, the family, of vulnerable minors. 

This is corroborated, for example, by the data collected in the latest study by the Foundation ANAR in Spain, dedicated to the care of minors at risk, in which more than 6,000 cases have been analyzed between 2008 and 2019. 

The conclusions of this study show that 49.2 % of the abuses of minors are committed in the close family environment: fathers and mothers, stepfathers and stepmothers. The same study includes the percentage of these abuses committed by priests or religious, which represent 0.2 % of the total, that is, a dozen of the cases that have come to the Foundation's attention. 

This percentage does not elude the great responsibility of any abuser, especially if we are talking about someone who should, with his life, show Christ, but it shows the key to this issue: we are facing a social problem, painfully widespread and, for the most part, invisibilized. 

A reality that we cannot address either by reducing its importance because the percentages are small, or by extrapolating data or making "assumptions" that betray the real victims: the minors or vulnerable people who have been abused. 

Social awareness of these facts has brought to the table the terrible and widespread reality of these behaviors, as well as the need to address, in the first place, an adequate formation of affectivity and corporeality that can be reinforced by prevention mechanisms that can be implemented in different areas: family, school, sports or church. 

In fact, it is not only the Catholic Church that has been shaken by these crimes. Following allegations of horrific abuse in sports clubs in Haiti or Afghanistan, FIFA committed to create a global investigative network aimed at addressing sexual abuse in all sports (which has not yet been formally constituted), while other religious denominations are also in this process of investigation, prevention and redress following cases such as those published in the investigation Abuse of Faith carried out by the Houston Chronicle in Baptist communities.

The Church in the face of abuse

The "earthquake" provoked by the knowledge of sexual abuses committed within the Catholic Church began more than two decades ago. 

The investigations carried out in the United States, as well as the knowledge of the abuses perpetrated by ecclesiastics in Ireland or cases such as that of the priest Marcial Maciel, put on the table a painful reality that, since then, the Church has not only tried to repair but also to prevent inside and outside the ecclesiastical spheres.

John Paul II and, especially, Benedict XVI, would be key in raising awareness and the need for reparation for these crimes throughout the Church. 

In 2001, Pope St. John Paul II promulgated the Motu Proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis TutelaThe new law established certain crimes that, due to their seriousness, were to be prosecuted through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; among them was the sexual abuse of minors by clergymen.  

Benedict XVI himself, in his letter to the Church of Ireland, after the terrible abuses perpetrated in that country by members of the Church, left no doubt about the painful and long task of reparation, forgiveness and healing that the whole Church would have to undertake: "You have betrayed the trust placed in you by innocent young people and their parents. You must answer for this before Almighty God and before the duly constituted courts." 

Benedict XVI would update the Norms on the most serious crimes reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his predecessor, extending criminal responsibility in relation to crimes of sexual abuse of minors.

The meeting Protection of minors in the Church held at the Vatican in February 2019 led to the recognition of the "Once again, the seriousness of the scourge of sexual abuse of minors is unfortunately a phenomenon that is historically diffuse in all cultures and societies. Only relatively recently has it been the subject of systematic studies, thanks to a change in the sensitivity of public opinion on a problem that was previously considered taboo, that is, that everyone knew of its existence, but no one talked about it."as Pope Francis pointed out in his final speech. 

In the same meeting, the pontiff pointed out the need for the whole Church to ask for forgiveness and reparation: "I would like to restate clearly: if even a single case of abuse - which in itself represents a monstrosity - is discovered in the Church, it will be confronted with the utmost seriousness. In the justified rage of the people, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and slapped in the face by these dishonest consecrated persons. The echo of this silent cry of the little ones, who instead of finding in them paternity and spiritual guides have found their executioners, will make hearts anesthetized by hypocrisy and power tremble. We have the duty to listen attentively to this suffocated silent cry"..

One of the most important steps in this struggle would be the publication of the Motu Proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi, which updates ecclesiastical legislation concerning these crimes and legal procedures and dictates the creation, throughout the Church, of bodies for prevention, reparation and assistance to victims, as had previously been established for the Holy See. 

In addition, in July 2020, the company made public a Vademecum on some procedural issues in cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics, prosecuted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A document that has been, since then, a key instrument regarding the protection of the victim, the process of investigation of a possible abuse and the penal measures and procedures to be followed. 

The updating of Book VI of the Code of Canon Law broadened the categories that were determined for these crimes of abuse, including as possible victims other subjects that in Church law have similar legal protection to that of minors and the conduct of abuse of minors carried out by non-clerical religious, or by lay persons who perform some function or office in the ecclesiastical sphere. 

Added to this is the recent updating of the Norms on the most serious crimes reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which focus on procedural matters, so that they are in line with the latest changes that the Roman Pontiff has made in criminal matters, facilitating legal procedures in these cases. 

In addition to the general norms, the local Churches have incorporated, in a short time, the indications of the Holy See and have created so-called victim care offices and issued various procedural norms, both penal and procedural, to avoid the repetition of these cases.

Church investigations

Several local Churches have initiated or commissioned independent research to ascertain the numbers of those affected by sexual abuse in the Church, their needs and demands. 

In Germany, the diocese of Cologne commissioned the law firm Gercke to conduct a study in order to study the ecclesiastical performance in cases of sexual abuse while the law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl presented a report with data relating to the diocese of Munich from 1945 to 2019 in which it concludes that 497 people would have been victims of sexual abuse committed by 235 people in this time interval. 

The Portuguese Church will also promote an independent commission to investigate possible cases of abuse in the country and, for its part, the Spanish Episcopal Conference has recently commissioned the law firm Cremades-Calvo Sotelo to carry out an independent and professional audit of these cases in Spain. 

The commitment to investigation and clarification of the facts in the Church represents the opening of a stage of transparency and reparation; although the methodology of some of these reports has presented serious deficiencies, such as the one on the French Church which, based on an Internet survey of 24,000 people, 171 of whom claimed to have been mistreated by clerics, made a questionable extrapolation to 330,000 affected (supposed and not contrasted) by extending it to the entire national adult population of France.

Despite the fact that "we have arrived late in the case of abuse" as has been recognized by prominent members of the Church, the speed with which many ecclesial realities, episcopal conferences and dioceses have put in place the relevant prevention mechanisms, investigations and denunciation offices have been a model for many other civil institutions.

All of society must step forward to not dilute personal responsibility for this reality so that all victims, regardless of their abuser, are equally heard, restored and cared for.

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