Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley speaks at the conference in Warsaw Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley speaks at the conference in Warsaw 

Cardinal O’Malley: Sexual abuse crisis requires a ‘pastoral conversion’

The President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors opens a safeguarding conference in the Polish city of Warsaw, and reiterates Pope Francis’ invitation for the Church in Eastern and Central Europe to undergo a pastoral conversion.

By Devin Watkins

“Listening to, acknowledging survivors and sincerely seeking their pardon are indispensable steps on this journey of renewal.”

Cardinal Seán O'Malley kicked off a 4-day conference in Warsaw with that exhortation to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which the Cardinal heads up, is holding the event on 19-22 September under the theme: “Our Common Mission of Safeguarding God’s Children”.

Conversion a heart of Church renewal

In his opening address to participants, who represent Church institutions across nearly 20 nations, Cardinal O’Malley spoke about the importance of pastoral conversion “as a missionary path for the entire Church,” an emphasis the Pope himself often makes.

“Conversion at both the personal and institutional level is at the heart of the process of renewal and is essential for what Pope Francis calls a ‘missionary transformation’ of the Church,” said the Cardinal.

He said the invitation to conversion is an essential theme at the conference which hopes to renew the Church in the face of sexual abuse across Central and Eastern Europe.

“We must work for change that will be incorporated in all aspects of the Church’s life,” said the Cardinal, “combatting sexual abuse wherever it has occurred regardless of the status or office of the person who has committed the crime.”

Listening heart

Cardinal O’Malley then offered three steps to assist Church leaders in their ministry to safeguard and care for minors and vulnerable persons.

The first—“listening”—requires a heart that is willing to acknowledge the “truth of what has happened”.

“When someone who has been abused by clergy, religious or other persons in the Church tells their story, we must receive them and their testimony with the utmost reverence,” he said.

The Cardinal also called for the creation and improvement of “clear channels of communication and encounter” where abuse survivors can contact the Church if they so desire.

He praised the many dioceses which have set up dedicated phone lines or email accounts for survivors or their family members to contact.

However, added the Cardinal, “if a diocese does not receive much response after establishing these means of contact, it does not mean the reality of sexual abuse by clergy or religious is not present.”

Rather, dioceses should seek to adapt their lines of communication for the local culture. “It is important that we all maintain a focus on providing accessible, welcoming and non-judgmental opportunities for survivors and their loved ones to contact and engage in dialogue with the local Church.”

Acknowledging abuse survivors

The next step in the process of renewal—“acknowledging survivors”—means the Church must “provide honest and clear recognition of those who have been abused.”

Cardinal O’Malley said defensiveness is not a correct response and should be replaced with “a deep listening to the survivor, with a willingness to understand more fully what they have experienced.”

One obstacle to this listening process, added the Cardinal, is a “misguided concern for the reputation of the institutional Church.”

“While pastors do hold responsibility for the protection of the Church, and in many cases have suffered or given their lives in defense of the faith,” said Cardinal O’Malley, “a skeptical and sometimes even demeaning response to the testimony of abuse can cause serious damage to the people the Church is called to hold as a priority for pastoral care and concern, namely, those broken and wounded by abusive ministers within the Church itself.”

Vulnerability in the face of wrongs committed by the Church’s ministers, added the Cardinal, is a common sentiment, though it can be also become a “experience of God’s action in our world that brings healing”.

Seeking forgiveness

The third and final step—“seeking forgiveness”—requires Church leaders to imitate Jesus who was moved when He saw the needs of the people.

Cardinal O’Malley said many survivors have been unjustly treated and have been “rejected in their suffering by the Church itself,” adding that they can instead play a leading role in building up the Church.

“By adopting the role of protagonists in our communities, survivors can provide an important insight to Gospel truth that opens the way for a new evangelization, even of the Church itself,” he said.

Though each abuse survivor’s journey is deeply personal and unique, the Church’s ministers must seek “pardon from all those impacted by sexual abuse”.

Recovering credibility without defensiveness

Finally, the President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors called on the Church in Central and Eastern Europe to continue along the path of pastoral conversion, so that the Church might “recover credibility and promote healing.”

The journey of learning, concluded Cardinal O’Malley, will be “ongoing throughout our lives.”

“With the assistance of dedicated and competent people like those gathered here and many others in the region who are committed to the process of healing and reconciliation,” said the Cardinal, “I am confident we are on the right path and can make meaningful progress, always putting concern for and the needs of the survivors first as we move forward.”

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19 September 2021, 17:46