• Sara Larson

Quick Takes on the Vatican Abuse Summit, Day 3 (Part 3)

Alright, I’m two days late, but it’s time to wrap up my observations on Day 3 of the Vatican summit. In case you're jumping into this series late, you can find my previous posts here: Intro post, Day 1, Day 2 - Part 1, Day 2 - Part 2; Day 3 - Part 1, and Day 3 - Part 2.

Here was the schedule for the end of Saturday:

Saturday, February 23; Theme: Transparency

16.00 Third Presentation, by Dr. Valentina Alazraki, Mexican Journalist and Vatican Correspondent

(Video, Text)

Title: Communication: To All People 16.30 Questions 16.40 Coffee Break 17.30 Penitential Liturgy (Video, Homily Text, Survivor Reflection)

Presentation by Dr. Valentina Alazraki; Communication: To All People

- In my mind, including a journalist as the final presenter at this summit is a powerful statement in and of itself. While some church leaders continue to treat the media as an enemy, there seems to be a movement among at least some leaders to express gratitude for the truth-finding role of the media and to see journalists as allies in the fight against abuse, corruption, and complacency in the Catholic Church. I, for one, am incredibly grateful for all of the persistent journalists who have helped bring to light the truth about clergy sexual abuse. I truly believe the Holy Spirit is working through their efforts, bringing purifying light to the Church that so desperately needs it.

- Father Lombardi’s introduction for Dr. Alazraki was very complimentary, and he testified to the depth of her experience covering the Vatican for the Mexican news media since 1974. Lombardi spoke about this veteran journalist with genuine affection, which I hope set the stage for truly receptive listening among the meeting participants. I think all of us who are newly engaged with the issue of clerical abuse and cover up would do well to listen to the wisdom and experience of those who have been paying attention to this issue for many years.

- At the beginning of her talk, Dr. Alazraki focused not so much on her role as a journalist but on her vocation as a mother. As the mom of two teenage boys myself, I do believe that mothers have much to contribute to this conversation, and I am glad Alazraki drew attention to that aspect of her experience.

- Only a few minutes into her speech, Dr. Alazraki delivered a strong challenge to all of those present: “Ask yourselves: are you enemies... of those who commit abuse or who cover it up? We have decided which side to be on. Have you done so truly, or in word alone? If you are against those who commit or cover up abuse, then we are on the same side. We can be allies, not enemies. We will help you to find the rotten apples and to overcome resistance in order to separate them from the healthy ones. But if you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.” How’s that for bold speech?

- Another important assertion: “We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role. Stealing, for example, is wrong, but if the one stealing is a police officer it seems more serious to us, because it is the opposite of what he or she should do.” I completely agree with her point. While I am well aware of the widespread nature of the problem of childhood sexual abuse, I also believe that it is perfectly reasonable for the Church to be held to a higher standard than others in society. Rather than complain about that high standard, let’s rise to the challenge and be the safest place in the world for children. I do believe it’s possible.

- Another gem: “I think you should be aware that the more you cover up, the more you play ostrich, fail to inform the mass media and thus, the faithful and public opinion, the greater the scandal will be. If someone has a tumor, it is not cured by hiding it from one’s family or friends; silence will not make it heal.”

- Dr. Alazraki was the first at the summit to mention the role of money in this crisis: “Behind the silence, the lack of healthy, transparent communication, quite often there is not only the fear of scandal, concern for the institution’s good name, but also money, compensation, gifts, construction permits… I am speaking of what I have seen and thoroughly investigated. Pope Francis always reminds us that the devil enters through the pockets, and he is absolutely right. Transparency will help you to fight economic corruption.” Personally, I would like to see more investigative journalism looking into any financial misconduct that might be wrapped in with the cover up - I bet there is still much to be uncovered.

- Dr. Alazraki was also the first presenter to explicitly mention the growing scandal regarding the sexual abuse of nuns and women religious by priests. As more and more reports come in from all over the world, this very well may be the “next scandal” faced by the Catholic Church, at a time when we are still struggling to respond to the scandal of child sexual abuse. In a rather optimistic turn, Alazraki suggested that this emerging abuse issue could be an opportunity for the Church to finally be on the side of honesty and transparency, to “play offense and not defense,” to be leaders in bringing the truth to light.

- The end of Dr. Alazraki’s presentation was particularly powerful: “I hope that after this meeting you will return home and not avoid [journalists] but instead seek us out. 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.” I pray that all church leaders can come to see those of us fighting for change - journalists, survivors, activists, and amateur bloggers alike - not as enemies but as essential allies in the fight against the real wolves.

Penitential Liturgy

- Saturday’s session ended with a “Penitential Liturgy” led by Pope Francis. Now, I know there is quite a lot of disdain these days for “thoughts and prayers” as a response to any kind of social ill. Of course, I agree that prayer does not erase our obligation to act in other concrete ways, but if we are people of faith, we believe that prayer really does matter. We believe that we are invited to live in relationship with God, who is the source of our strength and our hope. We believe that we cannot do this alone. So, we pray.

- It was a beautifully designed liturgy, full of song, Scripture, and silence, but this was not just a feel-good exercise. The whole liturgy was obviously designed to convict the hearts of all those gathered, to invite them to consider their own sins and failings and beg for the Lord’s mercy. The prayer began with Attende Domini (“hear us, O Lord, and have mercy, because we have sinned against you”) and Psalm 130 (“out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry”). Pope Francis’s opening prayer begged God, “give us the courage to tell the truth and the wisdom to know where we have sinned and need forgiveness.”

- Archbishop Philip Naameh of Tamale, Ghana gave a challenging homily, reflecting on the familiar story of the prodigal son and asking each bishop to see himself as the son who has wandered away and needs to come back to the Father’s embrace. You can read the full text of his brief homily here, but this was my favorite section: “Just like the prodigal son in the Gospel, we have also demanded our inheritance, got it, and now we are busy squandering it… Too often we have kept quiet, looked the other way, avoided conflicts – we were too smug to confront ourselves with the dark sides of our Church. We have thereby squandered the trust placed in us.”

I also appreciated Archbishop Naameh’s recognition of the loss that may be coming for many church leaders: “The prodigal son in the Gospel loses everything – not only his inheritance, but also his social status, his good standing, his reputation. We should not be surprised if we suffer a similar fate, if people talk badly about us, if there is distrust toward us, if some threaten to withdraw their material support. We should not complain about this, but instead ask what we should do differently… As with the son who returns home in the Gospel, everything is not yet accomplished – at the very least, he must still win over his brother again. 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.”

- After the homily, participants heard the testimony of another clergy abuse survivor, who offered challenging words about the devastation childhood sexual abuse brought into his life. It was particularly powerful to see the man who had just given this witness then pick up a violin and play a clear, haunting melody to accompany a time of reflective prayer.

- The spiritual culmination of this service was a long, slow examination of conscience for church leaders. I have not been able to find the complete text of these questions online anywhere (at least in English), so I am transcribing them here. The assembly entered into a period of silence after each of these sets of probing questions:

  • What abuses have been committed against children and young people by clergy and others in the church of my country? What do I know about the people in my diocese who have been abused and violated by priests, deacons, and religious? How has the church in my country responded to those who have experienced the abuse of power, of conscience, and sexual abuse? What obstacles have we put in their way? Have we listened to them? Have we tried to help them? Have we sought justice for them? Have I lived up to my personal responsibilities?

  • In the church of my country, how have we dealt with bishops, priests, deacons, and religious accused of sexual assault? How did we deal with those whose crimes were established? What have I personally done to prevent injustice and establish justice? What have I failed to do?

  • What attention have we given in my country to people whose faith has been shaken and who have suffered and have been hurt indirectly by these horrific events? Is there any help for the families and relatives of those affected? Did we help the people in the parishes where the accused and the perpetrators worked? Have I allowed myself to accompany the suffering of these people?

  • What steps have we taken in my country to prevent new injustice? Did we work to be consistent in our actions? Were we consistent? In my diocese, have I done what is possible to bring justice and healing to victims and those who suffer with them? Have I neglected what is important?

- After sitting with those soul-searching questions for a few moments, the congregation moved into a “confession of faults,” in which a leader confessed to a list of sins and failings on behalf of the whole assembly. After each confession, the entire assembly replied with “Kyrie, eleison” (Lord, have mercy). Here is what they prayed:

Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we are sinful human beings.

We confess that bishops, priests, deacons, and religious in the Church have done violence to children and youth, and

that we have failed to protect those who most needed our care.

We confess that we have shielded the guilty and have silenced those who have been harmed.

We confess that we have not acknowledge the suffering of many victims, nor have we offered help when it was needed.

We confess that often we bishops did not live up to our responsibilities.

We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done and failed to do.

Lord Jesus, we ask for your mercy on us sinners. We ask forgiveness for our sins. We ask for the grace to overcome injustice and to practice justice for the people entrusted to our care.

Even on a computer screen, it was a beautiful and moving service. (Liturgy is definitely one of the things Catholics do best!) Most importantly, the prayer provided a perfect opportunity for God to work in the hearts of all those gathered. I can only pray that all the participants approached this liturgy with a heart open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and that they will be pondering these challenging questions for a long time to come.


Just like the participants in the penitential liturgy,

let us close with the Magnificat, one my very favorite prayers.

(Pay attention - It’s actually quite revolutionary!)

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him

in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.


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