It has been a little less than ten years since the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minorsdesired by Pope Francis in March 2014, and five since the meeting on sexual abuse that the Holy Father himself convened and presided over from February 21-24, 2019 with representatives of bishops' conferences from around the world.
Although research by various organizations shows that the phenomenon of abuse is much more limited than in other social spheres (family, school, sport), it is an issue that, unfortunately, continues to wound the ecclesial body because it undermines its credibility, its mission of proclaiming the Gospel to every creature.
This is a highly topical issue, as is also demonstrated by the delicate situation of the German Church, which, starting from the wounds of the abuse scandals, has embarked on a decidedly tortuous "synodal path", given the continuous reminders from the Pope and his collaborators not to proceed along a path that risks leading to schism. The last of these reminders is the letter signed by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, and two other cardinals of the Roman Curia, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fernandez, and the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Prevost.
Prudence and responsibility
A subject, moreover, that must always be approached with great delicacy. It is true that in the history of the Church, even in recent times, there have been cases of proclaimed abuses, suffice it to recall the tragic events of Cardinal McCarrick, who was reduced to the lay state, the maximum possible penalty for a cleric, or the notorious Father Marcial Maciel.
These days, although it does not involve child abuse, the story of Father Rupnik, who is being investigated again by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith following reports sent last September by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
No one wants to hide behind a finger, and the zero tolerance line, first desired by Pope Benedict XVI when the phenomenon began to emerge, and reaffirmed several times by the current pontiff, is now indispensable.
As Francis said at the conclusion of the 2019 meeting, "the inhumanity of the phenomenon at the global level becomes even more serious and more scandalous in the Church, because it is at odds with her moral authority and ethical credibility."
However, prudence is always indispensable: the case of the Australian Cardinal Pell, who died in January last year, exonerated of all charges after the 400 days spent in prison as innocent, is a case in point.
But the question many are asking is: what is the Church doing after the scandals that have emerged almost everywhere in the world, from Chile to Germany, from the United States to Spain? Has it changed anything or has it not moved at all?
In reality, things have changed profoundly. Starting with the mentality and the way of dealing with these painful stories. This was recently confirmed in an interview by the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the American missionary Andrew Small: the perception of the problem of abuse within the Church, and also in society, has changed.
Small himself acknowledges that what the Church is not forgiven for is its mishandling of abuse cases: for too long it has put the safeguarding of the institution's image before forgetting the victims, often unheard or silenced. Today, fortunately, this is no longer the case.
The Popes themselves have met several times with the survivors, listening to their dramatic stories, showing closeness, affection and welcome. A change of mentality that has led them to broaden their gaze beyond minors, to take care also of vulnerable adults, to accompany the abused.
Prevention, repair and training
Parallel to this awareness, the Church has launched a strong preventive action and emphasis has been placed on reparation and formation. This is a fundamental aspect which, however, should not only concern priests and seminarians, but also families.
It is worth recalling some concrete steps as a result of the summit with the Bishops' Conferences five years ago, starting with the laws promulgated at the end of March 2019 for the Vatican and the subsequent motu proprio of May "Vos estis lux mundi"by which Pope Francis ordered that in all dioceses offices be organized to receive complaints and initiate procedures to respond to abuse.
It also stipulated that priests and religious were obliged to denounce abuses of which they had knowledge, as well as established the norms for superiors, including bishops, responsible for "covering up" cases of pederasty. Subsequently, the "pontifical secret" was abolished, and in 2021 it was reformed the code of canon law in the part on criminal law (Book VI). Another tool, at the service of dioceses and bishops, is the vademecum requested at the meeting and prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with a series of norms and suggestions to be followed in cases of abuse.
Is it enough? Perhaps not. But the path has been taken. With much more determination than in other social realities. Pederasty must be eradicated, all the more so in the Church.
A single abuse remains intolerable. But we must also have the intellectual honesty to recognize that much has been done to combat what Francis describes as "a blatant, aggressive and destructive manifestation of evil."