Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 3 (Part 1)
I was going to go to bed early this evening to catch up on the sleep I missed last night. Then I opened up the summit’s video feed, to take a quick glance at the opening prayer and first presentation of the day (the perfect relaxing bedtime viewing?). I quickly changed my mind about the importance of sleep.
Remember the African woman in the brightly patterned head scarf that I kept noticing in the back row of the conference hall? The one whose voice I wanted to hear?
Apparently, that woman is Sister Veronica Openibo - And she was the speaker this morning.
I guess we get to hear her voice after all. (Spoiler alert: Yes, she was appropriately awesome.) Well played, Holy Spirit, well played.
Here's the schedule and links for the first part of the day:
Saturday, February 23; Theme: Transparency
9.15 First Presentation, by Sister Veronica Openibo, Superior General of the Society of the Holy
Title: Openness to the World as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission
Before I jump into relating the awesomeness of Sister Openibo’s talk, there are a few things from the opening prayer that I would like to share, because they were similarly awesome. (Yes, I just used the word “awesome” three times in one post. Can you tell I’m enthusiastic?)
- As I’ve come to expect, the Scripture reading, Ephesians 5:1-11, seemed to be chosen to give a strong challenge to everyone seated in the conference hall: “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ… Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them.” Amen to that.
- After the Scripture reading, words from an abuse survivor were proclaimed to the assembly: “I feel like a beggar at the door of the castle, a beggar for truth, for justice, for light. And all I get is silence and the smallest pieces of information which I have to extract. I get tired and worn out. It’s like they hide behind their walls, their dignity, their roles that I don’t understand. It hurts because I was abused, because they don’t tell the truth, and because those who should be ministers of truth and light hide in darkness.” In the two minutes of silent reflection that followed, I wondered again who had planned the prayers for this meeting, and I thanked God that this planner was willing to be bold and challenging. We’ll just have to trust that the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
Presentation by Sister Veronica Openibo:
Openness to the World as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission
- I glanced at a few headlines about the abuse summit today, and I saw a lot of titles like “A nun just read the riot act to Catholic bishops over clergy sex abuse” and “Nun blasts the Catholic Church's ‘culture of silence’.” While I agree that Sister Openibo’s words were challenging, it’s an interesting glimpse at media bias to note that this language wasn’t used to describe any of the similarly-challenging presentations by bishops. I suppose “bishop blasts bishops” doesn’t make for a catchy headline.
- That said, Sister Openibo’s talk really was different than all those that had come before - not so much because of what she said, but because of how she said it. It’s hard to pin down exactly what made her presentation so unique, but if you watched clips from all of the talks (including the laywoman who spoke yesterday), you could play a very easy game of “one of these things is not like the others.” Openibo was the first speaker who conveyed any kind of warmth, who seemed to make a conscious effort to connect with her audience. She was the first to make a lighthearted comment that won a few laughs. She was the first to pause for a short prayer in the middle of her talk (a moment of quiet after she pleaded “Lord, have mercy on us.”). She was only the second (after Cardinal Tagle) to spend any significant time reflecting on Scripture or to use the name of Jesus repeatedly. None of these “firsts” quite captures what was so striking about her presence, so I would encourage you to watch her talk at the video linked above. Reading the transcript just doesn’t do it justice.
- Near the beginning of her presentation, Sister Openibo raised several key questions: “At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission. Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs, and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope?” Openibo spent a fair portion of her talk offering practical suggestions for change, including publishing not just names but complete information about credibly accused clergy, building research-based policies and procedures for safeguarding youth, and training priests and seminarians about appropriate boundaries.
- It would be best for you to read or watch her talk yourself, but in case you don’t time for that, I thought I would share a few of my favorite lines. I’m presenting them without comment, so that Sister Openibo can speak for herself:
“We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church.”
“The hierarchical structure and systems in the Church should be a blessing for us to reach the whole world with very clear mechanisms to address this and many other issues. Why has this not happened enough? Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general?”
“The fact that there are huge issues of poverty, illness, war, and violence in some countries in the Global South does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored. The Church has to be proactive in facing it.”
“The excuse that respect be given to some priests by virtue of their advanced years and hierarchical position is unacceptable. This argument states that many of the criminal offenders are old, some no longer alive, and that we should not hurt them or their reputations by taking away their priesthood in old age. We can feel sad for those who, when they were younger, committed offences that are now being brought out to the open. But my heart bleeds for many of the victims who have lived with the misplaced shame and guilt of repeated violations for years.”
“We know that abusers have often been victims themselves. Do we need to probe deeply what we mean by justice with compassion? How can we help create the environment for prayer and discernment for the grace of God to enlighten us in the way of justice, so that transformation and healing may take place for both victims and offenders?”
“It worries me when I see in Rome, and elsewhere, the youngest seminarians being treated as though they are more special than everyone else, thus encouraging them to assume, from the beginning of their training, exalted ideas about their status.”
“The study of human development must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminaries. The formation of young women religious, too, can often lead to a false sense of superiority over their lay sisters and brothers, that their calling is a ‘higher’ one. What damage has that thinking done to the mission of the Church? Have we forgotten the reminder by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes of the universal call to holiness?”
“We need to ask responsible and sensitive lay people and women religious to give true and honest evaluation of candidates for episcopal appointments.”
“The impact of damaged faith in the Church cannot be under-emphasized, as a large number of Catholics are and will be angry and confused.”
“Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by. Our credibility is at stake.”
- After the conversation about “zero tolerance” at yesterday’s press briefing, I thought it was interesting to note that Sister Openibo was the first to use that exact phrase in a presentation. She urged the assembly to “release the oppressed and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor by taking the necessary steps and maintaining zero tolerance with regard to sexual abuse.”
- One of the most impressive things in Sister Openibo’s presentation was a gutsy move she made at the very end, when she addressed Pope Francis directly. Here’s what she said: “I read with great interest many articles about the Pope’s reactions in the case of the Chilean bishops – from a denial of accusations, to anger because of deception and cover up, to the acceptance of resignations of three of the bishops. I admire you, Brother Francis, for taking time as a true Jesuit, to discern and be humble enough to change your mind, to apologize and take action – an example for all of us. Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing this opportunity for us to check and see where we have acted strangely, ignorantly, secretly, and complacently.” Whoa. It’s a rare thing to hear a church leader actually draw attention to Pope Francis’s mistakes in Chile, but to do so while sitting right next to him and calling him “brother”? That’s guts. What makes it even more beautiful is that she was able to take the pope’s mistake and present it as a teaching example for the bishops gathered, encouraging all of them to be “humble enough to change your mind.” A masterful move to wrap up her speech.
I am so grateful that Sister Veronica Openibo was given the floor today and that we all had the opportunity to hear the perspective of this faithful woman. More on the rest of Day 3 soon!
Let’s close with the prayer that the summit participants used this morning.
I found it particularly powerful.
Holy God, you’ve called us to holiness and sent us to the people as witnesses of your truth.
You have enlightened us with the light of the Gospel and want us to live as children of the light.
We beseech you, give us the courage to speak the truth and the freedom to profess our responsibility.
Save us from the temptation to deny crimes and conceal injustice,
and give us the strength to start ever anew and not give up when sin and guilt obscure the light of the Gospel.
Strengthen our trust in your Son, who alone is the way, the truth, and the light.
Your name be praised for all eternity.