Survivors Speak: "Ending Clergy Abuse" Organization at the Vatican Abuse Summit
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I did a lot of work on the Vatican Abuse Summit, watching the video of each presentation and press conference, then writing up summaries and commentary to help people follow along. (If you’re new here and wish you knew more about what actually happened in Rome in February, you can view all of those posts condensed into one long summary here.)
I learned a lot from following the summit so closely, and I hope my writing was helpful to some of you as well. However, on the very last day of the summit I realized that, by focusing only on the official meeting, I had done a disservice to the survivors present in Rome who were trying to make their voices heard. These survivors do not have the same resources as the Vatican - they couldn’t hire a professional communications team to get their message out, they didn’t have a website providing constant updates, and their press conferences were not live-streamed around the globe. But their voices are still important, and I’m sorry I wasn’t giving them equal attention.
I know several weeks have passed since the summit wrapped up, but I wanted to take the time to correct my mistake and tell you a little bit about what the survivors were saying in Rome. I hope you’ll join me in listening to their voices.
The most prominent survivors’ voices in Rome were raised up by the new organization, Ending Clergy Abuse, which was founded in 2017 by activists from all over the world. In their own words, the mission of ECA is to “compel the Roman Catholic Church to end clergy abuse, especially child sexual abuse, in order to protect children and to seek justice for victims. ECA demands the end of the Church’s structural mechanism that allows abuse.” By uniting survivors and other advocates from many countries around the world, ECA seems to have won greater credibility on the world stage; their spokespeople in Rome were treated by media as the presumptive representatives of all survivors.
(I should note: Every survivor’s story is different, and not all survivors of clerical abuse agree on what needs to happen next in this fight. I can’t find the place I first read this, but it seems important nonetheless: Remember that when you have listened to one survivor, you have listened to one survivor. That said, ECA seems to be the most unified voice on the world stage at this point.)
Before the summit began, many survivors interviewed by the media spoke with tentative hope about what they were expecting from this summit. While they all seemed somewhat cautious about expecting too much from the meeting, I heard several survivors emphasize that, regardless of outcome, the very existence of the summit was a victory for survivors. Others commented that the opportunity for survivors from around the world to come together was also a powerful step. One young man interviewed at a survivor event teared up while saying, “I really feel like I’m coming home in a way, being here with all these people… that they’re my church.” I was particularly struck by the powerful witness of ECA’s Denise Buchanan, who was raped and impregnated by a priest when she was a teenager in Jamaica. In one interview, Buchanan said that she had covered up her abuse for forty years, believing that she was alone. You can watch her and other survivors speak in a two minute news segment here: Twilight Vigil Gives Voice To Survivors On First Day Of Summit.
In one small victory, a group of survivors had the opportunity on the eve of the summit to meet with members of the summit’s planning committee, including Archbishop Scicluna, Cardinal Cupich, Cardinal Gracias, Fr. Zollner, and Fr. Lomardi. (In the press conference ECA held before this meeting, spokesman Peter Isely asserted that he expected Pope Francis to attend the meeting. However, the pope did not attend, and it doesn’t appear that his presence was ever promised.) According to ECA's website summary, this meeting was unique because the participants “agreed beforehand not to talk or dwell about their stories of abuse but only the issues.” This unique approach “set the tone for frank and at times confrontational exchanges that Vatican officials rarely experience.”
There does seem to be an ongoing question about the role that survivors will play in the reform of the Church. I have noticed, and apparently so has ECA, that when church officials talk about listening to survivors’ voices, they seem to be primarily focused on hearing victims tell their personal stories of abuse. These stories were certainly integrated into the summit and seemed to genuinely make an impression on the clerics in attendance. Obviously, acknowledging and believing the personal testimonies of survivors is essential and hopefully provides ample motivation for transformation. However, this type of listening is not the only type demanded by survivors; many seem to asking for a seat at the table to work for concrete reforms in the Church. They want more than compassion and sympathy - they want real change, and they want to be a valued part of efforts to bring about that change.
Ending Clergy Abuse focused their efforts in Rome on the goal of “zero tolerance,” which for them means two things:
First, they appealed for the creation of a universal church law declaring that any priest who has sexually abused a child will be removed from the priesthood.
Second, they demanded that any bishop who has covered up for child sexual abuse should not only be removed as bishop but also removed from the priesthood.
Ending Clergy Abuse held a press conference immediately before their meeting with the summit organizers. A short video clip is available here, but after much digging, I was able to find a complete video so that I could watch the whole thing (much better than reading other people’s summaries). A few thoughts:
- American survivor (and founding member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) Peter Isely was the primary speaker, but he was joined on the panel by:
Peter Saunders of the United Kingdom
Evelyn Korkmaz of Canada
Virginia Saldanha of India
Francesco Zanardi of Italy
Benjamin Kitobo of the Republic of Congo
Denise Buchanan of Jamaica
Pedro Salinas of Peru
- Peter Isely’s opening remarks gave a brief overview of Ending Clergy Abuse as an organization. Isely particularly noted that ECA could be a valuable resource for the Church, because these activists have years of experience working with survivors and church systems around the globe.
- I was struck by Isely’s specific emphasis on the power of Pope Francis to single-handedly address this problem: “The only way to solve this is at the top. There’s only one man at the top of the Catholic Church. He’s the rule-maker. He’s the one that has the authority. He’s the one who makes the decisions.” Later, regarding implementing zero tolerance, Isely declared, “Pope Francis can do it with a stroke of the pen.” I haven’t heard many voices place so much stock in what Pope Francis can do individually. Many experts have emphasized the pope’s desire to work collegially or the complications of Vatican bureaucracy, but it’s hard for me to know which limitations are firm and which are just red tape Pope Francis could cut through if desired.
- Peter Isely spoke about the hope that survivors had in Pope Francis at the time of his election. Isely praised the boldness of the pope in naming himself after Saint Francis of Assisi; survivors saw this move as a message that the new pontiff would follow in the footsteps of St. Francis to reform the Church. Unfortunately, many survivors have been frustrated with Francis’ lack of action, and Isely said he wanted to ask the pope, “Where’s the hold up? Help us solve this with you. Where is the difficulty? Why can’t you do this? Survivors all around the world are expecting this. You’ve promised zero tolerance for six years - now is the time to do this.”
- In a later interview, Peter Saunders echoed this sense of disappointment with Pope Francis. Saunders was a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors before he resigned in 2017. He had this to say about the pope: “When I met Francis, I believed he was going to do something serious about tackling the abuse in the Church. And I am so, so sorry that five years later, that man has not kept his word. Our children are still in danger around the globe from predatory priests.”
- In this press conference, several survivors emphasized the powerful effect that public witness can have on victims who have not yet come forward with their stories. Isely said that ECA was getting emails and texts every day from victims who are empowered by seeing other survivors speaking out. He asserted: “That's what heals survivors. If nothing else happens in that summit but that survivors reach other survivors, then it’s been an enormous success.”
- According to Isely, the other positive effect of the summit would be an increased awareness of clerical sexual abuse and cover up as a global phenomenon: “The same issues, the same obstacles, the same deceit, the same deception, the same non-transparency, the same irresponsibility that we’ve seen over and over again by church officials - That’s happening everywhere in the world.”
- Other survivors on the panel also offered a powerful witness to the global nature of this problem. Evelyn Korkmaz of Canada introduced herself as representing indigenous people victimized by the Indian Residential Schools. She spoke forcefully of the harm caused to her people by not only abuse but also the destruction of traditions and culture.
- Virginia Saldanha also shared powerful words about the plague of sexual abuse in India, particularly of nuns by priests. Saldanha said that she personally knew many victims, but each one had been too scared to come forward until 2018 when a brave sister from the Missionaries of Jesus told her story of repeated rape by her bishop. Saldanha also called out Cardinal Gracias, one of the summit organizers, for mishandling abuse cases in India, saying that some of the women she has worked with have brought cases to him and “most of them have been effectively silenced.” You may remember that I found Cardinal Gracias’s presentation at the summit very astute and challenging; at the time, I commented: “They are saying all the right things,” while cautioning that what matters is real action in individual cases. I believe that we should take seriously Saldanha’s assertion that Cardinal Gracias has been personally responsible for mishandling cases of abuse in his own country. Saying the right words means nothing if those words don’t translate into real action.
Throughout their press events, representatives of Ending Clergy Abuse were very clear that they wanted real and substantial change, not just promises and platitudes. They demanded that zero tolerance become not just an ideal or a hope, but an absolute policy “written into the universal law of the Church.”
On this count, they were disappointed. By the end of the summit, interviews with activists took a very different tone, as hope turned to frustration and anger. The consensus opinion seemed to be that this summit had turned out to be just more words without producing any real reforms. (You can see Peter Isely’s interview with EWTN here, if you want to hear directly from him.) ECA’s response to Pope Francis’ final remarks was definitely more confrontational than their statements before the summit began. In a particularly bold move, they specifically called upon Pope Francis to address questions about his recent handling of allegations against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta of Argentina.
More practically, Ending Clergy Abuse left Rome expressing dissatisfaction with the 21 reflection points that Pope Francis had offered bishops at the beginning of the summit. ECA offered their own list of 21 recommendations, which I am including in their entirety below to give visibility to the demands of these survivors.
They deserve to have their voices heard.
21 Points of Action for Pope Francis from Ending Clergy Abuse
Immediately enact into universal canon law: Any cleric who has been found guilty of even a single act of child sexual abuse, no matter when the act occurred, will immediately be removed from ministry and permanently removed from the priesthood.
Immediately enact into universal canon law: Any bishop or religious superior who has covered up or facilitated the sexual abuse of children will immediately be removed from his position of authority and permanently removed from the priesthood.
Prohibit the destruction of abuse-related files, and immediately turn these files over to civil authorities.
Create a canon law that criminalizes abuse of “vulnerable adults,” including seminarians and nuns who are sexually assaulted by clergy.
Rescind Pope Francis’ 2016 motu proprio, Come una madre amorevole, as it would result in ‘soft landings’ for culpable church officials.
Remove the Holy See’s sovereign immunity in regards to clergy sex abuse cases received by papal nuncio and all embassy staff.
Enact strong whistleblower protections. Prohibit any retaliation against church personnel who inform church or civil authorities of alleged sexual abuse.
Require clergy and church personnel to notify civil authorities of all known and suspected child sexual abuse allegations.
Immediately stop lobbying against reforms of statutes of limitations and other laws that would give victims access to civil and criminal courts.
Require all church officials to publicly support elimination of all criminal and civil statutes of limitation on child sex crimes.
Require every bishops’ conference and religious order to make reparations to victims.
Require every bishops’ conference and religious order to pay for victims’ unlimited therapy and, as needed, in-patient care.
Prohibit church officials from blaming victims’ parents for their children’s abuse by clergy.
Comply with the 2014 recommendations of the U.N. Committee for the Rights of the Child. See the CRC’s Concluding observations on the second periodic report of the Holy See, sections 43 and 44, issued February 2014.
Publish a global registry, accompanied by full files, of priests, religious brothers and religious sisters who have committed sex crimes against children and vulnerable adults. Disclosure must include both living and deceased individuals.
Publish a global registry, accompanied by full files, of all bishops, religious superiors, papal nuncio, and Curia members who are perpetrators of sexual abuse. Disclosure must include both living and deceased individuals.
Publish a global registry, accompanied by full files, of all bishops and religious superiors who have covered up or facilitated sex crimes against children and vulnerable adults. Disclosure must include both living and deceased individuals.
Release the current whereabouts of guilty clergy and describe how they’re being monitored.
Remove the pontifical secret in regards to all cases of child sex abuse by clergy. As Archbishop Scicluna said yesterday, the secret is “counterproductive.”
Pope Francis must be transparent about his own complicity. He must release to Argentine civil authorities and the public all documents concerning his role in the following cases: convicted child molester Fr. Julio César Grassi; Fr. Nicola Corradi, S.M., abuser of deaf children in Italy and Argentina; and Bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta, accused of sexually abusing seminarians and of possessing child abuse images.
End plausible deniability by bishops and the Pope: Create reliable internal channels for reporting of child sex abuse allegations, parallel with reporting to civil authorities.
Lord, give each of us the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to fight for it.