VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis and the Vatican have stepped up
action concerning the protection of minors from abuse by
clergy and the accountability of bishops to stop
The pope approved new procedures in June allowing the Vatican
to investigate questions of accountability and he cemented
the mandate of his own advisory body by approving the
statutes of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of
Minors. A number of bishops have stepped down the last two
months after accusations they failed to protect minors and
Vatican City State soon will bring to trial a former nuncio
on charges of abuse and possession of child pornography under
newly expanded laws.
All of this comes right before the one-year anniversary of
the pope's first meeting with abuse survivors and his promise
to "commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any
individual," and to hold all bishops accountable for
protecting young people.
He told survivors last July 7 that the "despicable actions"
caused by clergy had been hidden for too long and had been
"camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained."
As many continue to push for effective laws and procedures
that will create safe environments, some abuse experts are
saying it's also time to focus more on survivors.
The church, one theologian said, has to be more than just a
fortress of guidelines and norms keeping abusers out and
those not abused safe within, but it also must be an open,
welcoming home for those who have been wounded and pushed
"The law is never enough because people were hurt," so they
also need to find Christ's acceptance and compassion, not
just stiff regulations, said Jesuit Father James Corkery, a
theology professor at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.
There is a danger that too much emphasis on "action" and
"fixing" things can create a "muscular Christianity" that
crowds out any space for a more motherly embrace of her lost
and wounded sheep, he said.
Father Corkery was one of a number of speakers at a news
conference June 24 at the university. The panel presented
their findings from the annual Anglophone Conference on the
Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults.
Sponsored this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops together with the university's Center for Children
Protection, the June 21-24 gathering was dedicated to
building a spiritual and theological approach to child
Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a psychologist and member of the
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said a
theological approach is crucial, even though some might think
"that's wasted time, we should act."
However, such a reflection can help with prevention,
discipline and healing, speakers said.
It looks at "an important question that was not put very
often, 'What does God tell us with what has happened in the
church,'" what is expected of the church, especially
concerning power and community, and how should the church and
her ministers behave, Father Zollner said.
Father Corkery said he looked at church teaching on salvation
because the fact that "we are saved by Christ from our sins"
does not resonate well with survivors because "they have been
"Sin is not a category that is good for them to begin with.
In fact, it could make them feel worse because they think the
perpetrator has been forgiven," he said.
People who are abused by someone in the church may no longer
feel "saved, but distinctly unsaved," the priest said.
"They also lose their sense of the church as a face of
consolation, security, warmth. They feel doubly unsaved"
because the "very place where they should look for some
consolation and hope, well, that seems to be shut to them
given what's happened within it," he said.
Father Corkery said survivors could find greater healing from
a complementary view of salvation that emphasizes not just
the sin people are saved "from," but that Jesus also saved
people "for" something greater: "a flourishing life, health,
Together with remembering that Jesus, who through no fault of
his own, is a victim and suffers alongside other victims -
this other sense of salvation shows how Christ "makes a
difference now in our lives and not just in the world to
come," he said.
Sister Sara Butler, a theologian and president of the Academy
of Catholic Theology in Washington, said she discovered in
her research that the church had developed a highly effective
process for dealing with abusive clergy and negligent
superiors in the 11th century.
At the time, abuse by clergy was "widespread, rampant, much
worse than we have today and yet there was a way of
controlling it," said Sister Sara, a member of the Missionary
Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity.
She said St. Peter Damian, an 11th-century doctor of the
church, tackled the problem, not by changing the doctrine of
the priesthood, "but by disciplining the priests and the
bishops and the major superiors who were responsible for
tolerating this kind of abuse."
The Italian monk established policies and procedures that
heavily involved the laity; the lay committees - similar to
today's lay advisory boards - together with bishops and the
pope, helped "bring to justice" both the perpetrators and
their superiors, she said.
"This was a successful reform movement in the 11th century,"
which somehow got lost, but "is kind of a model for what
we're doing today" when it comes to building greater
accountability, she said.
Father Corkery said laypeople and church leaders still have a
huge role to play in working to stop abuse and heal "the
people who have been pushed out of the salvific community" of
Everyone must empathize and walk with survivors, help them
feel included, "take their accusations, their shrieks of
anger, all the things that will come from them because they
are suffering," he said.
But do so like Jesus, he said, in "an unprotected, vulnerable
way because that would give love the best opportunity and
them their best chance of walking together with us, toward
the light that has been taken from them."