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Zero tolerance for abuse

SOCIAL JUSTICE – rcsocialjustice.org

By Amílcar Sanatan, CCSJ Board member

In an interview with Maria João Avillez of CNN Portugal, Pope Francis reiterated his commitment to acknowledge, confront, and end abuse, in particular, the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.

He said, “Abuse by men and women of the Church – abuse of authority, abuse of power and sexual abuse, is a monstrosity because the man or woman of the Church – whether priest, religious or layperson, was called to serve and create unity, to foster growth, and abuse always destroys.”

There is no country in the world where the abuse of power and sexual abuse against children do not exist. Likewise, one would be hard pressed to find a country where an authority in the Catholic Church has not abused their power and violated the body and spirit of a believer seeking to understand God’s love. It is a painful reality with which the leadership and ordinary members of the Church must contend.

The abuse of power and sexual abuse against children are not isolated incidents within the Catholic Church – the problem is historical and institutional. The large mission of the Church, which includes education, the provision of health care services, and faith-based NGOs involved in social delivery, illustrates the reach and social power of the Church in societies.

For centuries, children, vulnerable groups, men, and women have been victimised by some priests, nuns and authorities and have suffered in silence.

In February 2019, Pope Francis convened a special summit to address clerical sexual abuse. ‘21 points of reflection’ were put forward and it explored a range of institutional responses to sexual abuse. One of which was acknowledging that survivors require expert psycho-social care for their recovery.

Another point in the reflection was to contemplate on the punishment for priests and authorities who abuse their power. The institutional silence surrounding sexual abuse and the voices of survivors have long tainted the image of the Church.

It has also been a source of disaffection with the Catholic Church, reducing the institution’s legitimacy in some countries, particularly among younger generations in Europe and North America.

Pope Francis has since abolished the Vatican secrecy rules for cases of sexual abuse. This allows the Catholic Church to share relevant case document information with civil authorities.

While there is certainly room for more urgent action and a whole-of-Church approach to transforming the culture of silence and sexual abuse, public dialogue, and steps to defend survivors are positive signs of an introspective Church.

The fact of the matter is that survivors of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse such as extreme acts of corporal punishment committed by religious and schoolteachers, cannot “pray away” their experiences, shame, and trauma.

In May, the local Catholic Church established a committee to investigate more than the allegations of abuse, but the extent to which Church-run institutions protected children and people it served.

Archbishop Jason Gordon noted, “The mandate of the Church is to preach and live the gospel, with concern for the well-being of all persons, especially children, and we give the assurance that every step will be taken to determine the facts and act appropriately in accordance with our public duty.”

Though the national media attention about abuse in care homes has dwindled, the work to amplify the voices of survivors, demand accountability from authorities and institutions, and creative safe spaces for all people, especially children, must go on.

‘Zero Tolerance for Abuse’ is a faith-based and national agenda. Throughout the entire society, violations happen daily. All religious communities and spaces, public primary and secondary schools, sport teams and children’s homes must reflect on institutional silence, the culture that protects perpetrators and re-victimises survivors and the abuse of power by authorities.

Safe spaces are spaces where rights are guaranteed, people with power are accountable and everyone can live a life free from violence. There is no such thing as slow progress in transforming a culture of abuse.

Every urgent and just act is an act of justice for the silenced, the survivors and the children with us today who should never know such harm.


“Love, then, is more than just a series of benevolent actions. Those actions have their source in a union increasingly directed towards others, considering them of value, worthy, pleasing, and beautiful apart from their physical or moral appearances. …Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all. (94)

– Pope Francis, Fratelli Tuitti.

CCSJ Social Justice Education Committee

Photo by Karolina Grabowska