VATICAN CITY (CNS) — 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 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 D.C., 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,” said Marie Collins, who accompanied one of the two survivors from Ireland for the closed-door papal meeting.
“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,” said Collins, who is also a survivor of clerical abuse.
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, Collins said, even “life-changing” for another who later spoke to the press.
Collins and Father 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 is 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,'” Father Zollner said.
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.
Collins and Father 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.
Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, said the Anglophone conference “is like a think tank” where people can bounce ideas around and have a healthy dialogue.
There can never be a “cookie-cutter approach,” said Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the U.S. National Review Board, because different cultures have different attitudes about how to talk about sexuality.
But, he said, common sense patterns emerge and, with input from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases, the conference “brings a realistic sense of what can be done.”
Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, 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 gets done for victims or perpetrators, “it won’t repair the damage,” he said.
Cesareo said that’s 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 added.
Problems will still exist and some forms of abuse will happen, he said, be the church must have “a culture that’s reliable,” where everyone knows 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, Father Zollner said laws won’t matter unless there is “a whole change of culture within the church,” one that is 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 is 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 is one of the worst things that can happen, the pope has said, and that’s 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, Father 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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