From 21 to 24 February, an important meeting on the protection of minors in the Church took place in the Vatican, bringing along with patriarchs, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, religious superiors and leaders of dicasteries. In the conclave, the voices of some victims of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy were heard.
Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by Church men against minors, Pope Francis invited participants to listen to the Holy Ghost so that, “docile to their guidance,” they may hear the cry of the little ones who ask for justice. “In this meeting,” he said, “we feel the weight of pastoral and ecclesial responsibility, which compels us to discuss together, in a synodal, sincere and profound way, how to deal with this evil that afflicts the Church and humanity. God’s holy people look at us and expect us, not only simple and obvious condemnations, but also to provide for concrete and effective measures. Concretetion is needed.” Below we offer readers the discourse of the Holy Father at the end of the Eucharistic concelebration that closed the meeting.
Dear brothers and sisters:
In the thanksgiving to the Lord, who has accompanied us in these days, I would also like to thank you for the ecclesial spirit and concrete commitment you have shown with such generosity.
Our work has led us to recognize, once again, that the seriousness of the plague of sexual abuse of minors is unfortunately a historically diffuse phenomenon in all cultures and societies. Only relatively recently has it been the subject of systematic studies, thanks to a change in public sensitivity about a problem that was previously considered taboo, that is, that everyone knew about its existence, but which no one was talking about. This also brings to mind the cruel religious practice, spread in the past in some cultures, of offering human beings – often children – as a sacrifice in pagan rites. However, even today the available statistics on sexual abuse of minors, published by various national and international organizations and agencies (WHO, UNICEF, INTERPOL, Europol and others), do not show the true entity of the phenomenon, often underestimated, mainly because many cases of sexual abuse of minors are not reported,1 in particular those very numerous in the family sphere.
In fact, very rarely do victims trust and seek help.2 Behind this reluctance can be shame, confusion, fear of revenge, feelings of guilt, mistrust in institutions, cultural and social conditioning, but also misinformation about the services and structures that can help. Unfortunately, anguish leads to bitterness, even suicide, or sometimes revenge by doing the same. The only truth is that millions of children around the world are victims of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Here it would be important to present the general data – in my opinion always partial – on a global level,3 after European, Asian, American, African and Oceania, to give a picture of the severity and depth of this plague in our societies.4 To avoid futile discussions, I would first like to show that the mention of some countries has the sole purpose of citing statistical data appeared in the above-mentioned reports.
The first truth that emerges from the available data is that those who commit abuse, i.e. violence (physical, sexual or emotional) are above all the parents, relatives, husbands of women, girls, coaches and educators. In addition, according to 2017 UNICEF data from twenty-eight countries around the world, nine out of ten girls, who have had forced sex, report being victims of a person known or close to the family.
According to official data from the American government, in the United States more than 700,000 children are victims of violence or abuse each year, according to the International Center For Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), one in ten children is sexually abused. In Europe, 18 million children are sexually abused.5
If you look, for example, at Italy, the 2016 “Telefono Azzurro” report shows that 68.9% of abuses occur within the domestic scope of the child.6
The theater of violence is not only the domestic environment, but also that of the neighborhood, the school, the de-porte7 and also, unfortunately, the ecclesial.
From recent studies on the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors, it emerges that the development of the web and the media has contributed to a remarkable growth in cases of online abuse and violence. The spread of pornography is spreading rapidly through the world over the web. The plague of pornography has reached enormous dimensions, with terrible effects on the psych and the relationships between men and women, and between them and children. It’s an all-growing phenomenon. A very important part of pornographic production sadly aims at minors, who are thus seriously injured in their dignity. Studies in this field document – it is sad – that this happens with increasingly horrible and violent modalities; you get to the point that acts of abuse are commissioned and carried out live through the network.8
I recall here the International Congress held in Rome on the dignity of the child in the digital age; as well as the first Forum of the Interreligious Alliance for Safer Communities on the same subject and which took place last November in Abu Dhabi.
Another pest is sex tourism: according to World Tourism Organization 2017 data, three million people travel each year in the world to have sex with a minor.9 The fact that perpetrators of such crimes, in most cases, do not recognize that they are committing a crime is significant.
We are therefore facing a universal and cross-cutting problem which unfortunately is verified almost everywhere. We must be clear: the universality of this plague, while confirming its gravity in our societies,10 does not diminish its monstrosity within the Church.
The inhumanity of the phenomenon on a global scale is even more serious and scandalous in the Church, because it contrasts with its moral authority and ethical credibility. The consecrated person, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, is subjugated by his human frailty, or by his illness, becoming an instrument of Satan. In abuse, we see the hand of evil that does not forgive even the innocence of children. There are insufficient explanations for these abuses against children. Humbly and with courage we must recognize that we are before the mystery of evil, which is ingested against the weakest because they are the image of Jesus. That is why the awareness has now grown in the Church that we must not only try to limit the very serious abuses with disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to deal with the phenomenon with choice both inside and outside the Church. The Church feels called to fight this evil that touches the core of her mission: to proclaim the gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.
I would like to make it clear: if even a single case of abuse – which already represents a monstrosity – is discovered in the Church, that case will be dealt with with as seriously as possible. Brothers and sisters, in the justified anger of the people, the Church sees the reflection of God’s wrath, betrayed and slapped by these dishonest consecrated men. The echo of this silent cry of the little ones, who instead of finding in them fatherhood and spiritual guides have found their executioners, will shake hearts anesthetized by hypocrisy and power. We have a duty to listen attentively to this suffocated silent cry.
It is therefore not possible to understand the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors without taking into account power, in that these abuses are always the consequence of abuse of power, taking advantage of a position of inferiority of the abused helpless that allows the manipulation of their conscience and their psychological and physical fragility. Abuse of power is present in other forms of abuse of which nearly 85 million children are victims, forgotten by all: child soldiers, prostituted minors, malnourished children, abducted children and often victims of the monstrous human organ trade, or also transformed into slaves, war-fighting children, refugee children, aborted children and so on.
In the face of such cruelty, first and foremosm this idolatry sacrifice of children to the god of power, of money, of pride, of pride, mere empirical explanations are not enough; these are not able to make us understand the breadth and depth of the drama. Once again, positivist hermeneutics proves its own limit. It gives us a true explanation that will help us take the necessary measures, but is not able to give us meaning. And today we need both explanations and meanings. The explanations will help us a lot in the operational field, but they leave us halfway.
What, therefore, is the existential “meaning” of this criminal phenomenon? Given its human breadth and depth, today it can be nothing but the manifestation of the spirit of evil. If we do not keep this dimension in mind we will be far from the truth and without real solutions.
Brothers and sisters, today we are faced with a manifestation of evil, brazen, aggressive and destructive. Behind and within this is the spirit of evil that in his pride and pride feels the lord of the world11 and thinks he has overcome. This I would like to tell you with the authority of brother and father, certainly small and sinful, but who is the pastor of the Church who presides in charity: in these painful cases I see the hand of evil that does not forgive even the innocence of the little ones. And this leads me to think of Herod’s example which, driven by fear of losing his power, commanded the massacre of all the children of Bethlehem.12 Behind this is Satan.
And just as we must take all the practical measures offered to us by common sense, science and society, we must not lose sight of this reality and take the spiritual measures that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, act of contrition, prayer, penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil. This was overcome by Jesus.13
Thus, the church’s goal will be to listen, protect, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten minors, wherever they are. The Church, in order to achieve this goal, must be above all the ideological controversies and journalistic policies that often instrumentalize, by various interests, the same dramas lived by the little ones.
The time has therefore come to work together to eradicate this brutality from the body of our humanity, taking all necessary measures already in force at the international level and at the ecclesial level. The time has come to find the right balance between all the values at stake and to give uniform guidelines for the Church, avoiding the two extremes of justice, caused by a sense of guilt for past mistakes and pressure from the media world, and self-defense that does not address the causes and consequences of these serious crimes.
In this context, I would like to mention the Best Practices formulated, under the direction of the World Health Organization,14 by a group of ten international agencies that has developed and approved a package of measures called INSPIRE, i.e. seven strategies to eradicate violence against minors.15
Using these guidelines, the Church, in her legislative journey, thanks also to the work carried out in recent years by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the contribution of this meeting, will focus on the following dimensions:
1. The protection of minors: the main objective of any measure is to protect minors and prevent them from being victims of any psychological and physical abuse. It is therefore necessary to change the mindset to combat the defensive-reactionary attitude of safeguarding the Institution, for the benefit of a sincere and decisive search for the good of the community, giving priority to victims of abuses in every way. Before our eyes must always be present the innocent faces of the little ones, recalling the words of the Master: “Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if they hung a millstone around his neck and threw it at the bottom of the sea. Oh, the world for scandals! Scandals are inevitable, but i’m sorry for the man the scandal is coming for!” (Mt 18.6-7).
2. Impeccable seriousness: I now wish to reiterate that “the Church will not tire of doing all that is necessary to bring to justice anyone who has committed such crimes. The Church will never attempt to cover up or underestimate any case” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2018). He is convinced that “the sins and crimes of consecrated persons acquire an even darker tinge of infidelity, of shame, and distort the face of the Church by undermining her credibility. Indeed, the Church, together with her faithful children, is also the victim of these infidelities and these true and own crimes of embezzlement” (ibid.).
3. True purification: despite the measures taken and the progress made in preventing abuses, there is a need to impose a renewed and perennial commitment to holiness on pastors, whose configuration with Christ the Good Shepherd is a right of God’s people. He then reiterates “his firm will to continue, with all his might, on the path of purification. The Church will question … how to protect children; how to avoid such inconveniences, how to treat and reintegrate victims; how to strengthen training in seminaries. It will seek to transform mistakes made into opportunities to eradicate this scourge not only from the body of the Church but also from society” (ibid.). God’s holy fear leads us to accuse ourselves – as people and as an institution – and to repair our faults. Accusing ourselves: it is a sapiencial beginning, coupled with the holy fear of God. Learn to accuse yourself, as people, as institutions, as a society. In reality, we must not fall into the trap of accusing others, which is a step towards the excuse that separates us from reality.
4. Formation: that is, the requirement of the selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood with criteria not only negative, concerned mainly with excluding problematic persons, but also positive to offer a balanced path of formation to suitable candidates, oriented to holiness and which contemplates the virtue of chastity. St Paul VI wrote in the encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus: “A life as totally and delicately committed internally and externally, as it is that of the celibate priesthood, excludes, in fact, subjects of insufficient psychophysical and moral balance, and grace should not be claimed to sucple nature in this” (n. 64).
5. Strengthen and verify the guidelines of the Episcopal Conferences: that is, reaffirm the requirement of the unity of bishops in the application of parameters that have the value of standards and not just guidance. Standards, not just guidance. No abuse should ever be disguised or undervalued (as has been customary in the past), because the cover-up of abuses favors the spread of evil and adds an additional level of scandal. In particular, develop a new and effective approach to prevention in all institutions and environments of ecclesial activity.
6. Accompany the abused: the evil they lived leaves in them indelible wounds that manifest themselves in resent and tendency to self-destruction. Therefore, the Church has a duty to offer them all the necessary support, using experts in this field. Listen, stop saying, “waste time” listening. Listening heals the wounded, and also heals ourselves from selfishness, distance, “it does not belong to me”, from the attitude of the priest and the Levite from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
7. The digital world: the protection of minors must take into account the new forms of sexual abuse and abuse of all kinds that threaten them in the environments in which they live and through the new instruments they use. Seminarians, priests, religious, pastoral workers; everyone should be aware that the digital world and the use of its instruments often has a deeper impact than is thought. Countries and authorities need to be encouraged here to implement all necessary measures to limit internet sites that threaten the dignity of men, women and children in a particular way. Brothers and sisters: crime does not enjoy the right to freedom. It is necessary to oppose absolutely, with the greatest decision, these abominations, to monitor and fight so that the growth of the little ones is not disturbed or altered by their uncontrolled access to pornography, which will leave profound negative signs in their minds and souls. It is necessary to commit ourselves so that boys and girls, in particular seminarians and clergy, are not slaves to dependencies based on the exploitation and criminal abuse of innocents and their images, and in contempt of the dignity of women and the human person. Here are evidenced the new rules “on the most serious crimes” approved by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, where they were added as new cases of crimes “the acquisition, retention or dissemination” made by a cleric “in any form and with any kind of means, of pornographic images of minors”. Then there was talk of “underage under the age of 14,” we now plan to raise this age limit to extend the protection of minors and insist on the seriousness of these events.
8. Sex tourism: the conduct, gaze, attitude of Jesus’ disciples and servants must know how to recognize the image of God in every human creature, starting with the most innocent. Only by taking advantage of this radical respect for the dignity of the other can we defend it from the dominant power of violence, exploitation, abuse and corruption, and serve it in a credible way in its integral, human and spiritual growth, in the encounter with others and with God. Combating sex tourism requires judicial repressive action, but also support and reintegration projects for victims of this criminal phenomenon. Ecclesial communities are called to strengthen pastoral care for people exploited by sex tourism. Among these, women, children and children are certainly among the most vulnerable and in need of special help; the latter still need protection and special attention. Government authorities must prioritize and act urgently to combat trafficking and economic exploitation of children. To this end, it is important to coordinate efforts at all levels of society and to work closely with international organizations to achieve a legal framework that protects children from sexual exploitation in tourism and allows criminals to be legally prosecuted.16
Now allow me a heartful thanks to all the priests and consecrated men who serve the Lord faithfully and fully, and who feel dishonored and discredited by the shameful conduct of some of their brethren. All – Church, consecrated, People of God and even God Himself – suffer the consequences of their infidelity. I thank, on behalf of the whole Church, the vast majority of priests who are not only faithful to their celibacy, but are spent on a ministry that is now more difficult because of the scandals of a few – but always too many – of their own. And thanks also to the laity who know their good shepherds well and continue to pray for and sustain them.
Finally, I would like to stress the importance of transforming this evil into an opportunity for purification. Let us look at Edith Stein, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, with the certainty that “in the darkest night arise the greatest prophets and the saints. However, the life-giving current of mystical life remains invisible. Surely, the decisive events in the history of the world were essentially influenced by souls upon whom the history books say nothing. And whatever souls we are to thank for the decisive events of our personal lives, it is something we will only know on the day when all that is hidden will be revealed.” The holy faithful people of God, in their daily silence, in many ways and ways continue to make visible and affirm with “stubborn” hope that the Lord does not abandon, that he sustains the constant and, in so many situations, painful dedication of his children. The holy and patient faithful People of God, sustained and envified by the Holy Spirit, is the best face of the prophetic Church who in her daily dedication knows how to put her Lord at the center. It will be precisely this holy People of God who free us from the plague of clericalism, which is the fertile ground for all these abominations.
The best result and the most effective resolution we can give to the victims, the People of the Holy Mother Church and to the whole world, is the commitment to personal and collective conversion, and the humility to learn, listen, assist and protect the most vulnerable.
I call on the fight against child abuse in all areas, both sexually and in others, by all authorities and all people, because these are abominable crimes that must be removed from the face of the earth: this is requested by the many victims hidden in families and in the various areas of our society.
1 Cf. María Isabel Martínez Pérez: Sexual abuse in children and adolescents, Ed. Criminology and Justice, 2012: only 2% of cases are reported, especially when abuse occurs at the family level. It estimates 15% to 20% of pedophilia victims in our society. Only 50% of children disclose the abuse they have suffered and, of these cases, only 15% are reported. Only 5% end up in one process.
2 One in three victims does not speak of it with anyone. (Data 2017 collected by the non-profit organization THORN).
3 Globally: In 2017, WHO estimated that up to one billion children between the ages of two and seventeen have experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence or neglect. Sexual abuse (from caresses to rape), according to some UNICEF estimates in 2014, affects more than 120 million girls, including the highest number of victims. In 2017, the same UN organization has referred that in thirty-eight low- or middle-income countries in the world, nearly 17 million adult women have admitted to having forced sexual intercourse in their childhood.
Europe: In 2013, WHO has estimated more than 18 million abuses. According to UNICEF, in twenty-eight European countries, around 2.5 million young women have reported sexual abuse with or without physical contact before the age of fifteen (data released in 2017). In addition, 44 million (22.9%) have been victims of physical violence, while 55 million (29.6%) they were of psychological violence. Not only: in 2017, the INTERPOL Report on the Sexual Exploitation of Minors has led to the identification of 14,289 victims in fifty-four European countries. Regarding Italy in 2017, Cesvi has estimated that six million children have been abused. In addition, according to the data prepared by Telefono Azzurro, in the period from the 1st. January and December 31, 2017, cases of sexual abuse and pedophilia served by the 114 Emergenza Infanzia service have been 98, approximately 7.5% of all cases served by this service. 65% of children asking for help were female victims and more than 40% were under the age of eleven.
Asia: In India, in the decade 2001-2011, the Asian Center for Human Rights reported a total of 48,338 cases of child rape, with an increase of 336%: of the 2,113 cases in 2001, in fact, it reached 7,112 cases in 2011.
America: In the United States, official government data state that more than 700,000 children are victims of violence or abuse each year. According to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC), one in ten children are sexually abused.
Africa: In South Africa, the results of a 2016 investigation by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention at the University of Cape Town have revealed that a young South African out of three, male or female, is at risk of sexual abuse before he has turned seventeen. According to this study, the first of its kind nationally in South Africa, 784,967 young people between the ages of fifteen and seventeen have experienced sexual abuse. The victims in this case are, predominantly, male boys. Not even a third have reported violence to the authorities. In other African countries, sexual abuse of minors is embedded in the broader context of violence linked to conflicts that bathe the continent in blood and are hardly quantifiable. The phenomenon is also closely linked to the practice of early marriages spread in several African nations and elsewhere.
Oceania: in Australia, according to data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in February 2018 and referring to the years 2015-2017, one in six women (16%, or 1.5 million) have reported physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of fifteen, and one in nine men (11%, or 992,000) has reported having experienced this abuse as a child. In 2015-2016, in addition, approximately 450,000 children have been subjected to child protection measures, and 55,600 children have been removed from the domestic sphere to cure abuses and prevent others. Finally, in order not to forget the risks faced by native minors: always according to AIHW, in 2015-2016, indigenous children have been seven times more likely to be abused and abandoned, compared to their non-indigenous contemporaries (cf. http://www.pbc2019.org/it/protezione-dei-minori/abuso-dei-minori-a-livello-globale).
4 The data presented refer to countries taken as a sample by the reliability of the available sources. UNICEF’s thirty-country research confirms this: a small percentage of victims claimed to have asked for help.
5 Cf. https://www.repubblica.it/salute/prevenzione/2016/05/12/news/maltrattamenti_sui_minori_tutti_gli_abusi – 139630223.
6 Specifically, the alleged perpetrator of the malaise suffered by a minor is, in 73.7% of any of the cases of the parents (the mother in 44.2% and the father at 29.5%), a relative in 3.3%, a friend in 3.2%, a known in 3%, a teacher in 2.5%. The data reveal that the percentage of a foreign adult manager is very small (2.2%) (cf. ibid.).
7 A 2011 English investigation by the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) found that 29% of the subjects interviewed claimed to have suffered sexual harassment (physical or verbal) in the centres where they played a sport.
8 According to 2017 data from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), every seven minutes a website sends images of sexually abused children. In 2017, 78,589 URLs containing images of sexual abuse, concentrated in particular in the Netherlands, followed by the United States, Canada, France and Russia, have been identified. 55% of victims are under the age of ten, 86% are girls, 7% are boys, 5% are both.
9 The most frequent destinations are Brazil, Dominican Republic, Colombia, as well as Thailand and Cambodia. To these, some countries in Africa and Eastern Europe have recently been added. The first countries to come from those who perpetrate abuses are France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Japan and Italy. Nor should we forget the growing number of women travelling to developing countries, seeking sex for money with minors: in total, they account for 10% of sex tourists in the world. In addition, according to a study led by ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism) between 2015 and 2016, 35% of paedophile sex tourists were regular customers, while 65% were occasional customers (cf. https://www.osservatoriodiritti.it/2018/03/27/turismo-sessuale-minorile-nel-mondo-italia-ecpat).
10 “If this grave misfortune has struck some consecrated ministers, the question is: How much could it be profound in our society and in our families?” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2018).
11 Cf. R. H. Benson: The Lord of the World, London, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1907.
12 “Quare times, Herod,quia audis Regem natum? Non venit ille ut te excludat, sed ut diabolum vincat. Sed tu haec non intelligens turbaris et saevis; et ut perdas umum quem quaeris, per tot infantium mortes efficeris crudelis […] Necas parvulos corpore quia te necat timor in corde” (S. Quadvultdeus: Sermo 2 de Symbolo, PL 40, 655).
13 “Quemadmodum enim ille, effuso in scientiae lignum veneno suo, naturam gusto corruperat, sic et ipse dominicam carnem vorandam presumens, Deitatis in ea virtute, corruptus interitusque sublatus est”, Maximus the Confessor: Centuria 1, 8-13, PG, 1182-1186.
14 (CDC: United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CRC: Convention on the Rights of the Child; End Violence Against Children: The Global Partnership; PAHO: Pan American Health Organization; PEPFAR: President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief; TfG: Together for Girls; UNICEF: United Nations Children’s Fund; UNODC: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; USAID: United States Agency for International Development; WHO: World Health Organization).
15 Each letter of the word INSPIRE represents one of the strategies, and most have been shown to have preventive effects on different types of violence, as well as benefits in sectors such as mental health, education and crime reduction. The seven strategies are as follows: Implementation and enforcement of laws: acting and enforcement laws (e.g. prohibiting violent disciplines and limiting access to alcohol and firearms); Norms and values: rules and values to change (e.g. those who tolerate sexual abuse of girls or aggressive attitude among boys); Safe environments: safe environments (e.g. identifying “peaks” of violence in neighborhoods and addressing local causes with a policy that solves problems and other interventions); Parent and caregiver support: parents and support from the family assistant (e.g. providing training to young people’s parents and recent parents); Income and economic strengthening: income and economic strengthening (such as micro-credit and gender equity training); Response and support services: response and support services (e.g. ensuring that children exposed to violence can access effective emergency care and receive adequate psycho-social assistance); Education and life skills: life instruction and training (e.g., ensuring that children go to school and providing social skills).
16 Cf. Final Document of the First World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Tourism, 27 July 2004.