Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Bishops told transparency needed to overcome clergy abuse crisis

Cardinal Reinhard Marx leaves at the end of a media briefing during a four-day sex abuse summit called by Pope Francis, in Rome, on Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — On the last full day of the meeting in Rome on clergy sex abuse, a German cardinal and a Nigerian nun, each in his or her own way, explained that transparency was the only way for the Catholic Church to deal with the crisis. They spoke with bluntness unusual in meetings of bishops, practicing the transparency they preached.

In his presentation, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, acknowledged that files were destroyed, silence was imposed on victims, and procedures for the prosecution of offenses were deliberately not complied with.

“The rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot, and left to the whims of individuals,” complained the cardinal.

What is needed is transparency, he said, where “actions, decisions, processes, procedures, etc., are understandable and traceable.” He noted that similar transparency is also important in finances, another area where scandals have taken place.

While acknowledging the German love of administrative rules and procedures, he said that in the church, “administration should take place in such a way that people feel accepted in administrative procedures, that they feel appreciated, that they can trust the system, that they feel secure and fairly treated, that they are listened to and their legitimate criticism is accepted.”

Transparency is especially important so people “can uncover errors and mistakes in the administrative actions and defend themselves against such actions.”

He argued that “the principles of the presumption of innocence and the protection of personal rights, and the need for transparency, are not mutually exclusive.”

Marx even criticized the practice of secrecy in the Vatican, which imposes church penalties for revealing things the Vatican doesn’t want disclosed. He saw no reason “why pontifical secrecy should apply to the prosecution of criminal offenses concerning the abuse of minors.”

The cardinal also called for the publication of judicial proceedings and the release of statistics on the number of abuse cases.

Marx’s focus on administrative structures contrasts with Pope Francis’ stress on conversion and commitment: Francis focuses on changing the culture of the church, while Marx focused on making sure things are done properly.

These approaches are not in conflict; they are complementary. All the structures in the world will not work unless people are motivated to do the right thing. Likewise, all the good intentions in the world will not suffice if you don’t know what to do.

The speaker before Marx did focus on the church’s culture, but made a similar plea, calling for the bishops to break the culture of silence and secrecy that sought to protect abusers and avoid scandal.

Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian nun and leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, speaks to reporters at the Vatican. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

“Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed. This storm will not pass by,” asserted Sister Veronica Openibo of the Society the Holy Child Jesus. “Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth?”

She called not only for publishing the names of offenders but also “a complete set of information regarding these situations.”

Openibo, who studied in the United States for three years, described watching “Spotlight,” the 2015 film about the Boston Globe reporters who exposed clergy abuse in their city. Tears of sorrow flowed at the end of the film, she said, when a long list of cases and the dioceses was displayed, showing the number of children affected.

“How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?” she asked the assembly. “Our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a church.”

She urged those present to maintain zero tolerance of sexual abuse, without exceptions for the elderly or those in high office.

Other issues regarding sexuality that have not been addressed sufficiently, she said, include the “misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general.”

She disagreed with those Africans and Asians who say that “this is not our issue in countries in Africa and Asia, it is the problem in Europe, the Americas, Canada and Australia.”

Working for nine years on sex education in Nigeria, she heard many stories of abuse, some of which she shared. She spoke of abuses in convents and formation houses, as well as of a 13-year-old girl attacked by a priest.

“The fact that there are huge issues of poverty, illness, war and violence in some countries in the Global South,” she said, “does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored.”

Like Francis, she sees clericalism at the heart of the abuse crisis. “The normal process for clergy — in the past and still in the present in some areas,” she complained, “was/is to give support to ‘one of us,’ to avoid exposing a scandal and bringing discredit to the church.”

She said that she worries when she sees, 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.”

She also challenged the role of minor seminaries, saying that the study of human development raised serious questions about the existence of high school boarding schools for seminarians.

She addressed the pope as “Brother Francis” and thanked him “for taking time as a true Jesuit to discern and be humble enough to change your mind, to apologize and take action.” He should be an example for all of us, she said.

The concluding speaker on Saturday was Valentina Alazraki, a journalist covering the Vatican, who insisted that “transparent communication is indispensable to fight the sexual abuse of minors by men of the church.” In her presentation, she said that journalists should be seen not as enemies but allies whose “mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice.”

On the other hand, “If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society,” she said, “you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.”

She noted recent stories in the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, about the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops. She urged the bishops to play offense, not defense, in handling these abuses, “which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.”

In conclusion, she hoped that bishops and journalists could “join our forces against the real wolves.”

Pope Francis, background third from left, attends a penitential liturgy at the Vatican on Feb. 23, 2019. The pontiff hosted a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo Via AP)

Saturday concluded with a penitential service for all the cardinals, bishops and religious superiors attending the meeting. Pope Francis felt that it was important to acknowledge liturgically the sins against the victims.

After a reading from Luke’s parable of the prodigal son and a homily by Archbishop Philip Naameh of Tamale, Ghana, they heard from a victim of abuse who also played a haunting and sorrowful solo on the violin. This was followed by an examination of conscience that with a series of pointed questions asked the participants how the church in their country and how they themselves responded to the abuse of children by priests.

The service culminated in a confession of faults read by New Zealand Cardinal John Dew with the assembly responding, “Kyrie, eleison” — “Lord have mercy.”

  • “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 acknowledged 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.”

The penitential service was a moving conclusion to the conference on sexual abuse, but it had one false note. Those present, as is customary at penitential services, exchanged the sign of peace and reconciliation. That felt out of place since those with whom the bishops need to be reconciled were, for the most part, not in the room.

The real work of reconciliation must begin when the bishops go home. They must convince their brother bishops that this crisis is serious, that they must protect children and remove all abusive priests from ministry, and that they must listen to survivors of abuse and do all that is possible to help in their healing. They must hold each other accountable and be transparent about what has happened and about what they are doing to protect children.

Only if this happens will the meeting have been a success.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


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  • The Summit succeeded very well in showcasing the Church leadership’s determination to talk a lot and do as little as possible.

  • Transparency will be a difficult road to hoe for a group of men best known for fostering opaqueness in church-related matters.

  • Supposedly there are a majority of Catholics who are opposed to how the Church has handled the sexual abuse scandals. If they really cared and wanted to see something get done, they could do one simple thing – next Sunday, do not go to mass, do not put money in the collection basket. The moment the church loses hundreds of millions of dollars in one day worldwide, they will take the necessary steps to correct the wrong. Until then, every Catholic who steps through the doors next Sunday (or Saturday evening) is simply agreeing that victims don’t matter and that the hierarchy’s inaction is appropriate.

  • Ummm; no.
    The mass IS why Catholics are Catholic. That is one of the sole purposes of the church; to humbly worship God through Christ’s sacrifice.
    Not to go to mass would be an affront to Christ himself.
    Your comment also discounts all of the good and holy priests who continue to serve the Bride of Christ and the faithful – they do not deserve to be harmed for what some have done.
    That being said, those same holy priests will be the ones who pay reparation for the sins of their fellow priests.

  • Supporting the disgusting Church’s position on sex abuse is probably more of an affront to Christ. Please, let’s not insult Christ.

    The priests who are good do not deserve to be harmed, you are correct. No harm will come to them by their congregants standing up for true christian values. They should actually join their congregants in protesting.

  • I never said I supported it. If you read any of my posts, I call for the destruction (short of death) of any priest who has harmed the church.
    If you would know anything about the local RCC parish, the local priests are embarrassed, ashamed, sickened, angry, etc. by their brother priests and their leadership. Next to the victims, they suffer as well.
    That being said, it is they that will move the church forward; hopefully implementing the transparency required.
    You wish to burn the church. The church will never be destroyed because it is the faithful and the holy priests.

  • I never said you supported it. If you don’t wish to stand up for what it right, then maybe you inadvertently are… Maybe a compromise would be to attend mass but withhold payment. The purse is powerful.

    “You wish to burn the church.”

    What kind of nonsense is that? LOL

  • You won’t even entertain the compromise? If you attend church and give money then yes, you support the actions of the church. Trying to work with you here…

  • A compromise in your example would be going to mass and not making a donation.
    I prefer going to mass and allowing this process to continue.

  • Yes, because I understand (having spent a large portion of my life in the RCC) the importance of the Mass separate from the institution. Most folks don’t give money to an organization they don’t agree with. Seriously, your bishop will get the message when your parish monsignor doesn’t hand over the money from the weekend!! He will do the right thing lickety-split!

  • I laid it out for you. Go to church, talk to you priest, but withhold payment. Very simple – the hierarchy is all about money (they won’t be able to buy those fancy outfits they wore in Rome!!)

  • “Cardinal convicted: The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys in Melbourne, Australia, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, bowed his head but then regained his composure as the jury delivered unanimous verdicts on Dec. 11 after more than two days of deliberation. The court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial. Pell, 77, faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins Wednesday. Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as “vile and disgusting conduct” that went against everything he believed in.”

    When Anita Bryan divorced Bob Greene, her then husband, she also said that divorce went against everything she believed in. But she did it anyway.

  • Being completely transparent: The Great Kibosh of All Religions rules and makes the RCC as with all religions defunct.

  • “the local priests are embarrassed, ashamed, sickened, angry, etc.”

    In my case, there were many other “good” priests who knew about the abuse and said and did nothing.

  • Church officials are incapable of transparency. They’ve proven that again and again. They will never be able to escape the cloud of suspicion that they brought on themselves.

  • I hope it is not too late.

    I do believe that Pope Francis has had to learn a great deal about the extent of sex abuse within the Church, about the damage caused by clerical sex abuse, and about the simple fact that all this cannot be kept secret any more. We saw his wrong moves in Chile and in his silence when, as Bishop of Rome, the Italian Bishops Conference in 2014 said they would not be reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to the police because Italian civil law didn’t require it. There were others.

    I believe Pope Francis gets it now better than any previous pope and most bishops/cardinals. (But, credit to BXVI for the steps taken in 2001/2010 with the Motu Proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela”. It was a good, necessary beginning – just not sufficient to deal with the whole cultural problem.) I think Pope Francis understands that cultural change must occur, a change of attitudes and perceptions about the roles of clericals/hierarchs and laity. I don’t think BXVI understood that issue.

    I think the Catholic Church is at a point where more change can be made – that the Church can absorb it. It has to. But I wonder if Pope Francis gets it about the need for changes in Canon Law that have supported the secrecy, power abuse, fear of scandal that has made this scandal go on and on and become so horrific. We know now, we laity and the rest of the non-Catholic world.

    I expect changes to continue to roll out. I expect changes in how the Vatican organizes to address the issue of sexual abuse, starting with child sexual abuse but also now beginning to recognize the abuse of power as it affects religious men and women, seminarians, and laity. I expect changes in Canon Law. I expect changes in how bishops are judged. All this over time – beginning very soon and spread over time. I pray long life to Francis and that whoever follows him keeps the momentum going.

  • I am hopeful as well. I think people will start to speak up and demand action. Unfortunately, when you have the pope referring to “the devil” and saying the church needs to pray, it is kind of a long shot that concrete rational actions will take place. I want to ask him and the praying bishops/cardinals whether they think the kids who were abused might have been praying for things not to happen to them…

  • A “Saturday penitential service,” was highly needed and appropriate. But I also see no mention of “The Chair of St. Peter, Apostle,” which is celebrated on Friday. No doubt Pope Francis had some reflections in light of the conference. But the upcoming Motu Propio should probably tell us more.

  • “…people will start to speak up and demand action.”

    Indeed. So thankful for modern communication. So much that could have been hidden at one time cannot be hidden in these times. And what is known can be shared world wide.

    I do think Pope Francis is more likely than any other power player in the Church to create a good change. But we shall see.