VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Catholics need to know that their leaders “mean business” when it comes to protecting minors from abuse, the Vatican’s top abuse investigator told representatives of the world’s bishops and religious orders.
“They should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth. We will engage them with candor and humility. We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us,” said Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta.
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The archbishop, who is adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a member of the organizing committee for the Feb. 21-24 Vatican meeting on the protection of minors in the church, spoke on the first day of the proceedings about “taking responsibility for processing cases” of alleged abuse and for preventing abuse.
In the presence of Pope Francis, the archbishop told the almost 190 church leaders that “one of the fundamental tests of our stewardship and, indeed, of our fidelity,” is the way in which bishops and religious superiors exercise their ministry at the service of justice.
“It is our sacred duty to protect our people and to ensure justice when they have been abused,” he said.
Archbishop Scicluna, a canon lawyer who worked at the doctrinal congregation for 10 years dealing with cases of alleged clerical sexual abuse, used his talk to outline what canon law says about how allegations of sexual misconduct should be handled and investigated, and what additional best practices are “advisable.”
Underlining the importance of getting expert advice and maintaining a “collegial” atmosphere throughout the process of abuse investigations, he also called on bishops and religious superiors to remember they are a “shepherd of the Lord’s flock” and need to understand “the deep wounds inflicted on victims of sex abuse by members of the clergy.”
After meeting so many victims around the world, he said he realized that sitting down with a survivor is “sacred ground, where we meet Jesus on the cross.”
“This is a Via Crucis we bishops and other church leaders cannot miss. We need to be Simon of Cyrene helping victims, with whom Jesus identifies himself, carry their heavy cross” with adequate and appropriate care, he said.
In fact, he urged leaders to make up for the gaps or areas not covered by canon law and current procedures by exercising greater pastoral stewardship and recognizing the abuse of children “is also a crime in all civil jurisdictions.”
Archbishop Scicluna said the “stewardship of prevention” also includes helping the pope in the selection of candidates for bishop appointments.
“Many demand that the process be more open to the input of laypeople in the community,” he said. But it is a bishop’s and religious superior’s “sacred duty” to assist the pope as he considers possible leaders.
“It is a grave sin against the integrity of the episcopal ministry to hide or underestimate facts that may indicate deficits in the lifestyle or spiritual fatherhood of priests subject to a pontifical investigation into their suitability for the office of bishop,” he said.
A bishop’s or religious superior’s stewardship also should include preventing “sexual misconduct in general,” in addition to the sexual abuse of minors, he said. This requires screening candidates, being vigilant, being a holy and fatherly role model and providing in-depth and ongoing formation in areas that include understanding “the demands of priestly celibacy and chastity.”
“Prevention is better served when protocols are clear and codes of conduct well known,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “Response to misconduct should be just and even-handed. Outcomes should be clear from the outset.”
He said the “valid and positive” practice in some countries of offering church members specific training in abuse prevention needs to “grow in accessibility” and be spread around the world.
And, he added, a “culture of disclosure” is aided when there is a “ready availability of user-friendly access to reporting mechanisms.”
“The faith community under our care should know that we mean business,” he said.
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