Wednesday, July 3, 2013
When Nations Get Together on Child Sexual Abuse
By Bishop R. Daniel Conlon
Sexual abuse of children by clerics stands as an international problem and the church is just beginning to approach it that way. Last year the Vatican backed an international symposium on the problem at the Gregorian University. This year, the U.S. and Sri Lankan bishops jointly sponsored what’s known as the Anglophone Conference.
Since 2000 the English-speaking Catholic episcopal conferences have met annually to help each other effectively respond to the sexual abuse. Held in Rome, this year’s conference, for the first time, was co-hosted by one episcopal conference from the developed world (USA) and one from the developing world (Sri Lanka). The partnership was successful and enriching. This year’s theme, “Youth Protection Going Global” was inspired by the Gregorian Symposium last February.
A record number of episcopal conferences were represented, thanks in part to a generous anonymous donor. Participation included 20 episcopal conferences, represented by 56 delegates, including 15 bishops. A major interest was in how episcopal conferences around the world have responded to the Circular Letter of May 2011 from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The letter asked all episcopal conferences to develop guidelines for child abuse and protection. Father Robert Oliver, the new Promoter of Justice at CDF reported that more than 80 percent of the conferences have submitted guidelines.
Father Oliver spent time with the group and left us encouraged when he repeated Pope Francis’s comments that the church needs to take decisive action. He reminded us to put children first and said their protection is among the most important things to be addressed.
Participants found a contrast between episcopal conferences with highly developed protocols and those just beginning to develop them. Some conferences have provided services for many years. Some are just beginning to write policies. We noted common challenges and a desire to cooperate. One representative from Africa said that every culture seems to have tribes that are sure it is the other tribes that are doing this horrible thing.
Not surprisingly, the issue of child protection is different in many developing countries, as Bishop Vianney Fernando from Sri Lanka reminded us. Many conferences see child protection as encompassing the whole wellbeing of their children. Neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse are taken into consideration. Several countries struggle with their children sold into the sex trafficking trade or conscripted into war.
Participants noted that technology needs to be reckoned with worldwide, for it can both do good and cause harm. It has brought pornography production into all countries. It leaves children the victims of those willing to exploit the vulnerable. All episcopal conferences are dealing with the use of pornography; some have to deal directly with preventing its children from being used in this crime.
Participants shared information on how to develop safety plans for priest-offenders who have been assigned to a life of payer and penance. Everyone recognized the practical challenges of such plans, especially for diocesan priests.
As the meeting proceeded, consensus grew that that dioceses worldwide need to be in relationship with each other no matter how near or far they are, no matter how different the culture may be. Strong relationships between episcopal conferences can only make children safer around the world. This year’s Anglophone conference succeeded in bringing 20 conferences together. That stands as progress in the unending quest to address what is perhaps the most difficult problem the church has had to face in the modern world.
Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.