On Final Day of Discussions, Abuse Summit Highlights Transparency

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo and veteran Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki addressed participants on this theme.

Sister Veronica Openibo, society leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Nigeria, speaks at a Vatican press conference on Feb. 23.
Sister Veronica Openibo, society leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in Nigeria, speaks at a Vatican press conference on Feb. 23. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Proposals not to bind abuse cases to the pontifical secret, to end seminarians having “exalted ideas about their status,” and to view the media not as “vicious wolves” but as allies against the “real wolves” were some of the main points of discussion on the third day of the Vatican summit on clerical sex abuse.

Dedicated to the theme of transparency in dealing with abuse, the final full day was also dominated by what many viewed as the most powerful testimony given at the meeting from an abuse victim, and remarks by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich who disclosed that some files of priests in Germany accused of sexual abuse had been either destroyed or never created. 

In his presentation, the German cardinal, one of a handful of cardinals advising Pope Francis on Church reform, asserted that traceability of actions, decisions and procedures on abuse cases were essential to transparency. 

He pressed for a “fully functional” Church administration, oriented towards the Church’s mission and “based on the principle of justice.” Such administration, he said, “creates order,” regulating laws and stabilizing cooperation between people and institutions. By contrast, he said the sexual abuse of minors is in “no small measure” due to the “abuse of power in the area of administration.” 

“Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created,” said Cardinal Marx in an admission that shocked some in the media. “Instead of the perpetrators, the victims were regulated and silence imposed on them.” 

He said the stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offences were “deliberately not complied with, but instead cancelled or overridden” and the rights of victims were “effectively trampled underfoot, and left to the whims of individuals.” 

The cardinal later told reporters he was referring to a German study in 2014 on how to improve administrative systems in the German Church. That study showed some diocesan documents, such as Munich’s over a ten-year period, had been “manipulated or didn’t contain what they should have contained.” 

He said no one was named in the study, nor their responsibilities, but that he “assumed Germany is not an isolated case” in such maladministration which “can directly oppose” the Church’s mission.


The Pontifical Secret

Turning to the pontifical secret — a rule of confidentiality to protect the governance of the universal Church but which also includes penal processes concerning major crimes — Cardinal Marx said some reasons for invoking the secret, such as to protect the reputation of innocent priests or against other false accusations, should be considered. But he did not find these reasons “particularly forceful,” he said.

He added that pontifical secrecy would only be “relevant” in these cases if it would apply to the “prosecution of criminal offences concerning the abuse of minors,” but he added that “as things stand, I know of no such reasons.”

Instead, he advocated a “transparent, clearly regulated and defined procedure” which, to him, was the “best safety mechanism” against false judgements and prejudices. The goal and limits of pontifical secrecy need to be defined in light of today’s communications, he said, otherwise the Church faces being suspected “of covering up.”

Speaking to reporters, Archbishop Charles Scicluna said there was a “movement” among summit participants "not to bind” these “procedures” with the “top heavy element of confidentiality” in the form of pontifical secrecy.  

He said he believed normal civil and canonical procedures already guarantee “a level of confidentiality” and that that “would be enough to guarantee the dignity of the people concerned and the good name of people because of the presumption of innocence.” With this in mind, he appeared to go further than Cardinal Marx, saying “there’s no need for this top-heavy ancient institute which is, at times, the butt of so many jokes, as you know.”  

In the rest of his speech, Cardinal Marx spoke of the need for transparent norms and rules for Church processes, and the publication of both court proceedings and statistics on the number and detail of abuse cases. He also advocated “traceability and transparency” in the area of finance.


Sister Veronica Openibo

Also in the morning, Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, society leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, spoke on “openness to the world” as a consequence of the Church’s mission. 

She said other issues around sex abuse have not been “addressed sufficiently” such as “misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general.” 

Sister Openibo warned against hiding and waiting for the storm to pass, but to have “courageous” and “face-to-face” conversations, build “more effective and efficient processes,” and stop encouraging seminarians to have “exalted ideas about their status” and young women religious to be formed having a “false sense of superiority” over the laity. “Have we forgotten the reminder by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spesof the universal call to holiness?” she asked.

She praised Pope Francis for apologizing over his admitted mistake regarding abuse and the Chilean bishops, and said she hoped and prayed the summit will lead to a break in any “culture of silence and secrecy among us,” prompting Church leaders to be “pro-active not reactive” and “fearless” in facing issues of abuse. 

Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican correspondent for Mexican television, gave a spirited defense of journalism in combatting clerical sex abuse from the perspective not just of a journalist but also a mother. 

As a mother, she said there are no “first and second-class children” just “stronger children and more vulnerable ones.” Likewise, she said, bishops and cardinals are no more important than a minor who’s been abused. 

She told the bishops if they are against abuse and cover up and radically on the side of minors, families and mothers, “we are on the same side,” but if not, “you are right to be afraid of us because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.”   


Don’t Blame the Messengers

Alazraki said she had “seen it all” — how many times, she said, has she heard the scandal of abuse is “the press’ fault, that it is a plot by certain media outlets to discredit the Church?” She added that as far as she was concerned, no mass media “can be blamed” for uncovering or reporting on abuse cases. 

The journalists’ mission, she said, “is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice.” And she added that “by virtue of your moral role” as Catholic bishops, journalists will be “more rigorous with you than with others.” 

The veteran reporter warned bishops not to “play ostrich” and cover up but to inform the public, and do so quickly. She recalled the clergy abuse scandal of Mexican Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, and pressed bishops to provide information in a “proactive and not reactive way,” reporting things “when you know them.” 

Transparency, she said, will help bishops to “be coherent with the Gospel message” and pointed to the truism that those who hide something are not necessarily corrupt, but all corrupt people are “hiding something.” 

The Mexican journalist made three suggestions for putting transparency into practice: placing victims first, seeing them as persons not statistics; seeking advice before making decisions (and ensuring spokespersons have access to their bishop and are fully apprised of his thinking); and “professionalize” communications (no comment or silence, she said, leads journalists to seek third parties for information, as well giving the impression that accusations are “totally true”). 

“I hope that after this meeting you will return home and not avoid us, but instead seek us out,” Alazraki concluded. “That you will return to your dioceses thinking that we are not vicious wolves, but, on the contrary, that we can join our forces against the real wolves.”


Victims’ Testimonies

During the day, the bishops heard the testimony of a woman who was repeatedly raped by a priest starting when she was just 11, and was abused for 5 years. “Engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul, are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength,” said the woman, whose name remained anonymous. “I desensitized myself, I held my breath, I came out of my body, I searched desperately for a window to look out of, waiting for it all to end.

“I thought: ‘If I don’t move, maybe I won’t feel anything; if I don’t breathe, maybe I could die’,” she said. 

Summit moderator Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said it was “probably the most intense moment in the meeting so far.” 

In Rome victims marched to the Vatican on Saturday, holding signs accusing the Pope of not listening to their cries, and urging both clerical abusers and also those who enabled them be laicized.

Meanwhile, another testimony was read to the bishops. “Abuse of any kind is the worst humiliation which an individual can experience,” said the unnamed victim. “What hurts the most, is the certainty that nobody will understand you. That lives with you, for the rest of your life.”

At a penitential liturgy in the Sala Regia in the apostolic palace Saturday evening, Pope Francis said bishops “need to examine where concrete actions are needed for the local Churches, for the members of our episcopal conferences, for ourselves. This will require that we look honestly at the situation in our countries and our own actions.”

A lector then read a series of questions as part of an examination of conscience followed by a “confession” of nine faults, praying: “Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we are sinful human beings.” After each of the faults, they prayed together: “Kyrie, eleison.”

They also confessed to protecting the guilty and silencing the victims, not acknowledging the suffering of victims, or helping them when needed, and that “often we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities.” 

The service concluded by the assembly asking for the mercy of Jesus Christ and forgiveness for their sins. Music was played by a professional violinist who also gave his testimony as a victim of abuse.


‘Squandered the Trust'

In his homily at the service, Archbishop Philip Naameh, president of the Ghanaian bishops’ conference, said the Church’s leaders have, like the prodigal son, “squandered the trust placed in us” by God. But the situation for the son starts to take a “turn for the better,” he added, “when he decides to be very humble, to perform very simple tasks, and not to demand any privileges.” 

He subsequently confesses to his father who experiences “great joy at the return of his prodigal son, and facilitates the brothers’ mutual acceptance,” Naameh said.

“We should also do the same: win over our brothers and sisters in the congregations and communities, regain their trust, and re-establish their willingness to cooperate with us, to contribute to establishing the kingdom of God.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.