Pope Francis at Opening of Abuse Summit: ‘Hear the Cry of the Little Ones’

The Holy Father calls for a ‘synodal, frank and in-depth’ discussion and for ‘concrete and effective measures’ to be taken.

Pope Francis opens Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse, Feb. 21, 2019.
Pope Francis opens Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse, Feb. 21, 2019. (photo: YouTube)

Pope Francis has opened the four-day meeting of bishops’ conference presidents on “Protection of Minors in the Church,” saying the “People of God” are looking not for “simple and predictable condemnations” but rather for “concrete and effective measures” to be taken.

He expressed hope that the participants “hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice,” and that they discuss “in a synodal, frank and in-depth manner” how to “confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity.” 

The summit begins with participants “armed with faith and a spirit of great parrhesia [frankness], courage and concreteness,” he said, and pointed out that guidelines, or reflection points, derived from bishops’ conferences’ contributions will serve as “simple point of departure” (see full list below).

The Pope implored the Holy Spirit to help “turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification” and asked the Virgin Mary to “enlighten us as we seek to heal the grave wounds that the scandal of paedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers.” 

The Feb. 21-24 meeting with 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world will be focused on three main areas — responsibility, accountability, transparency — and will feature keynote presentations, working group discussions, meetings with abuse victims, a penitential liturgy and a closing Mass. 

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, and Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta gave the first two presentations this morning.  

Cardinal Tagle spoke on The Smell of the Sheep: Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the core of the shepherd's task. 

Archbishop Scicluna, who has long experience of investigating abuse cases on behalf of the Holy See, spoke on the theme: Taking Responsibility for Processing Cases of Sexual Abuse Crisis and for Prevention of Abuse. 

Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez Archbishop of Bogotá, Colombia, spoke on The Church In Times of Crisis: The responsibility of the bishop dealing with conflicts and tensions and acting decisively. 

The full text of Pope Francis’ remarks:

“Dear Brothers, good morning!

In light of the scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by ecclesiastics to the great harm of minors, I wanted to consult you, Patriarchs, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, and Religious Superiors and Leaders, so that together we might listen to the Holy Spirit and, in docility to his guidance, hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice. In this meeting, we sense the weight of the pastoral and ecclesial responsibility that obliges us to discuss together, in a synodal, frank and in-depth manner, how to confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity. The holy People of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete.

So we begin this process armed with faith and a spirit of great parrhesia, courage and concreteness.

As a help, I would share with you some important criteria formulated by the various Episcopal Commissions and Conferences – they came from you and I have organized them somewhat. They are guidelines to assist in our reflection, and they will now be distributed to you. They are a simple point of departure that came from you and now return to you. 

They are not meant to detract from the creativity needed in this meeting.

In your name, I would also like to thank the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the members of the Organizing Committee for their outstanding and dedicated work in preparing for this meeting. Many thanks!

Finally, I ask the Holy Spirit to sustain us throughout these days, and to help us to turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification. May the Virgin Mary enlighten us as we seek to heal the grave wounds that the scandal of paedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers. Thank you.”

Here below are the 21 "Reflection Points" formulated by various commissions and episcopal conferences which the Pope said would serve as “a simple starting point” that "do not take away from the creativity that must be present in this meeting.”

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Archbishop Scicluna said the points were “very important” because they are a “road map for our discussion,” adding that it is therefore “an understanding they have to be taken seriously.” 

1. To prepare a practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.

2. To equip oneself with listening structures that include trained and expert people who can initially discern the cases of the alleged victims.

3. Establish the criteria for the direct involvement of the Bishop or of the Religious Superior.

4. Implement shared procedures for the examination of the charges, the protection of the victims and the right of defense of the accused.

5. Inform the civil authorities and the higher ecclesiastical authorities in compliance with civil and canonical norms.

6. Make a periodic review of protocols and norms to safeguard a protected environment for minors in all pastoral structures: protocols and norms based on the integrated principles of justice and charity so that the action of the Church in this matter is in conformity with her mission.

7. Establish specific protocols for handling accusations against Bishops.

8. Accompany, protect and treat victims, offering them all the necessary support for a complete recovery.

9. Increase awareness of the causes and consequences of sexual abuse through ongoing formation initiatives of Bishops, Religious Superiors, clerics and pastoral workers.

10.Prepare pathways of pastoral care for communities injured by abuses and penitential and recovery routes for the perpetrators.

11.To consolidate the collaboration with all people of good will and with the operators of mass media in order to recognize and discern real cases from false ones and accusations of slander, avoiding rancor and insinuations, rumors and defamation (cf. Pope Francis’ address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2018).

12.To raise the minimum age for marriage to sixteen years.

13.Establish provisions that regulate and facilitate the participation of lay experts in investigations and in the different degrees of judgment of canonical processes concerning sexual and / or power abuse.

14.The right to defense: the principle of natural and canon law of presumption of innocence must also be safeguarded until the guilt of the accused is proven. Therefore, it is necessary to prevent the lists of the accused being published, even by the dioceses, before the preliminary investigation and the definitive condemnation.

15. Observe the traditional principle of proportionality of punishment with respect to the crime committed. To decide that priests and bishops guilty of sexual abuse of minors leave the public ministry.

16.Introduce rules concerning seminarians and candidates for the priesthood or religious life. Be sure that there are programs of initial and ongoing formation to help them develop their human, spiritual and psychosexual maturity, as well as their interpersonal relationships and their behavior.

17.Be sure to have psychological evaluations by qualified and accredited experts for candidates for the priesthood and consecrated life.

18.Establish norms governing the transfer of a seminarian or religious aspirant from one seminary to another; as well as a priest or religious from one diocese or congregation to another.

19.Formulate mandatory codes of conduct for all clerics, religious, service personnel and volunteers to outline appropriate boundaries in personal relationships. Be specific about the necessary requirements for staff and volunteers and check their criminal record.

20.Explain all information and data on the dangers of abuse and its effects, how to recognize signs of abuse and how to report suspected sexual abuse. All this must take place in collaboration with parents, teachers, professionals and civil authorities.

21.Where it has not yet been in place, establish a group easily accessible for victims who want to report any crimes. Such an organization should have a certain autonomy with respect to the local ecclesiastical authority and include expert persons (clerics and laity) who know how to express the Church's attention to those who have been offended by improper attitudes on the part of clerics.