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Cardinal Gracias on Accountability in a Collegial and Synodal Church

‘Multifaceted Crisis that has Gripped and Wounded the Church’

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Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, spoke to the Summit on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”  on February 22, 2019, on Accountability in a Collegial and Synodal Church.  Following is the working translation of his talk provided by the Vatican.
Most Holy Father, my brother bishops, friends in leadership positions in the Church,
Two days back we met with a group of victims. The meeting left a deep impression on me. I was numbed and could not speak. I could sense the anger, frustration, hurt, helplessness and bitterness that they felt. I share this with you as a background of our meeting these days. We met just 12, but there would be tens of thousands more whom we have not met. How do we respond to them? How do we help them? This is our challenge.
My dear brother bishops and friends, Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the subsequent failure to address it in an open, accountable, and effective way has caused a multifaceted crisis that has gripped and wounded the Church, not to speak of those who have been abused. And the Church wounded is you and me: our good people in the pews who come regularly for Mass; the elderly couples, the college students, the laity seeking earnestly to be missionary disciples of the Lord. Although the experience of abuse seems dramatically present in certain parts of the world, it is not just a limited phenomenon. Indeed, the entire Church must take an honest look, undertake rigorous discernment, and then act decisively to prevent abuse from occurring in the future and to do whatever possible to foster healing for victims. This is our duty, this is our calling.
The importance, urgency and universal scope of this challenge have prompted Pope Francis to summon us to this meeting, underscoring the Church’s commitment and his commitment to addressing this crisis. By inviting the presidents of national conferences of bishops, he is signaling how the Church must address this crisis. For him and for those of us gathered with him, it will be the path of collegiality and synodality. That way of being the Church will then—with God’s help—shape and define how the whole Church at the regional, national, local-diocesan and even parochial levels will take up the task of addressing sexual abuse in the Church. Thus, synodality can truly be lived, by incorporating all decisions and the resulting measures at all these different levels. I will leave sinodality to cardinal Cupich in the next talk. I will focus on collegiality.
Permit me to frame this in a personal perspective. No bishop should say to himself, “I face these problems and challenges alone.” Because we belong to the college of bishops in union with the Holy Father, we all share accountability and responsibility, and we should feel the support of one another. We are strengthened by the presence of Peter with us. Be sure, Holy Father, of our total support, for any decision you may decide to take. But we also need to feel the support of one another, as a college of bishops. Collegiality is an essential context for addressing wounds of abuse inflicted on victims and on the Church at large. We bishops need to return to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council often, in order to find ourselves in the larger mission and ministry of the Church. Consider these words from Lumen Gentium: “The individual bishops, who are placed in charge of particular churches, exercise their pastoral government over the People of God committed to their care…(b)ut each of them, as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the entire Church.” (n.23)
The point is clear. No bishop may say to himself, “This problem of abuse in the Church does not concern me, because things are different in my part of the world.” This is just a problem for the USA or Europe or Australia. This, brothers and sisters, is just not true. I dare say there are cases all over the world, also in Asia, also in Africa. But even if we are true, we are jointly responsible, all of us, in this Synod Hall this morning, are jointly responsible to tackle the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clerics all over the world. We, as a body, are called to examine ourselves. We need to acknowledge first of all the fact of sexual abuse, we need to acknowledge the inadequacy of preventive measures, we need to ask pardon for this. We need to commit ourselves resolutely to take steps that this will never happen in the Church again, that we have a Church that is free from the sexual abuse of minors. Is it possible? It should never be, because we in leadership roles did not do enough. We are each responsible for the whole church. We hold accountability and responsibility together. We extend our concern beyond our local Church to embrace all the churches with which we are in communion.
As we take up our collegial and collective sense of accountability and responsibility, we will inevitably encounter a certain dialectic. For our collegiality does indeed express the variety and universality of the People of God, but also the unity of the flock of Christ. There is, in other words, an abiding need to appreciate the great diversity in the lived experience of the churches spread throughout the world because of their history, culture, and customs. At the same time, we must appreciate and foster our unity, our single mission and purpose which is to be “…in the nature of sacrament—a sign and instrument of communion with God and of unity among all people.” (LG, n. 1).
Practically, this means that as we address the scourge of sexual abuse together, that is, collegially, we must do so with a singular and unified vision as well as with the flexibility and adaptiveness that stems from the diversity of people and situations in our universal care.
In this context, we must also ask ourselves fundamentally whether we adequately live what is meant by the concepts of collegiality and synodality. Collegiality and synodality must not only remain theoretical concepts extensively described but not put into practice. In this regard, I still see plenty of scope for further developments. Perhaps we can make progress, if we can clarify the following points.

  • It cannot be disregarded that dealing with the topic of abuse in the right way has been difficult for us in the church, for various reasons. We as bishops also bear responsibility for this. For me, this raises the question: do we really engage in an open conversation and point out honestly to our brother priests, to our brother bishops when we notice problematic behaviour in them? We should cultivate a culture of correctio fraterna, which enables this without offending the other, and at the same time recognise criticism from a brother as an opportunity to better fulfil our tasks.
  • Closely related to this point is our own willingness to personally admit mistakes to each other, and to ask for help, without feeling the need to maintain the pretence of own perfection. Do we really have the kind of fraternal relationship, where in such cases we don’t have to worry about damaging ourselves, simply because we show weakness? Do we have the humility to do so?
  • For a bishop, the relationship with the Holy Father is of constitutive significance. Every bishop is obliged to directly obey and follow the Holy Father. We should ask ourselves honestly, whether on this basis we don’t sometimes think that our relationship with the other bishops is not so important, especially if the brothers have a different opinion, or if they feel the need to correct us. Do we perhaps ignore the input from our brothers, because ultimately only the Pope can give us orders in any case, and therefore collegiality is easy to ignore, or in such cases has no relevant clout?

If in such contexts we ourselves always refer back to Rome, we shouldn’t wonder if a certain Roman centralism does not sufficiently take into account our diversity in our brotherhood, and our local church competencies and our skills as responsible shepherds of our local churches are not appropriately used, and thereby the practically lived collegiality suffers. If we want to and must revitalise our collegiality, then we also need to have a discussion between the Roman Curia and our bishops’ conferences. I wonder why we cannot decentralize a bit, do most of the work at a national episcopal level of the study and investigation of cases. This will ensure speedier justice. We must have uniform jurisprudence, but this can be ensured.
I am convinced that there are no real alternatives to collegiality and synodality in the Church. But before I note some practical consequences for addressing sexual abuse from a collegial perspective, let’s summarise the challenge that we face together.
The Challenge of Sexual Abuse in the Church
The sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church reveals a complex web of interconnected factors including, as causes: psychopathology, sinful moral decisions, social environments that enable abuse to happen, and often inadequate or plainly harmful institutional and pastoral responses, or a lack of response. The abuse perpetrated by clerics (bishops, priests, deacons) and others serving in the Church (e.g. teachers, catechists, coaches) results in incalculable damage that is both direct and indirect. More importantly, abuse inflicts damage on the survivors. This direct damage can be physical. Inevitably, it is psychological with all the long-term consequences of any serious emotional trauma related to a profound betrayal of trust. Very often, it is a form of direct spiritual damage that shakes faith and severely disrupts the spiritual journey of those who suffer abuse, sometimes spiralling them into despair.
Some of the victims we met said: “I have lost faith in the Church. I have lost faith in God”. The indirect damage of abuse often results from a failed or inadequate institutional response to the sexual abuse. Included in that kind of indirect and damaging response might be: failure to listen to victims or to take their claims seriously, not extending care and support to victims and their families, giving priority to protecting institutional concerns over and above the care of victims, failing to withdraw abusers from situations that would enable them to abuse other victims, and not offering programmes of formation and screening for those who work with children and vulnerable adults.
Permit me to share with you some experiences of interaction with victims. Some years back, I met with a person holding a very senior position of responsibility in the secular world. He was very bitter, could not forgive. Thinking that he needed counselling for healing, I spent quite some time discussing the matter with him rationally. I made no headway. Only much later I realized, as I do now, the very long lasting, sometimes lifelong damage this abuse does to the person, to the psyche of the person. Couple of others I met were younger. It shocked me how this changed the personality of the person: could not study, distract, became close, could not relate normally with others at home … the person was destroyed. My brother bishops and sisters and brothers, I realize we can hardly ever get it right. We must have the humility to admit we make mistakes. We must learn. We learn from our mistakes how to do better the next time, how to deal with such cases better the next time.
Addressing sexual abuse in the Church represents a complex and multifaceted challenge, perhaps unprecedented in the Church’s history because of today’s communications and global connections. This makes collegiality even more decisive in our current situation. How ought a collegial Church respond to that challenge? If we use the elements of collegiality as a lens for viewing and addressing the crisis, we can perhaps begin to make some progress, we can see the way forward. Surely, addressing the crisis does not mean a quick or definitive solution. We will need to begin courageously and persevere resolutely on the road together, continuously improving, helping each other, learning from our mistakes which all of us make. This is collegiality.
For now, I want to indicate three themes that I consider especially important for our reflection: justice, healing, and pilgrimage.
The sexual abuse of others, most especially minors, is rooted in an unjust sense of entitlement: “I can claim this person for my use and abuse.” The abuser may not have thought about this initially, but gradually it leads to this mentality. We’ve seen that in testimonies. Although sexual abuse is many things, such as a breach of trust and a betrayal of confidence, it is at root an act of grave injustice. Victim-survivors speak of their sense of being unjustly violated. A fundamental task that belongs to all of us individually and collegially is to restore justice to those who have been violated. There are multiple levels at work in this process of restoration.
The sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people not only breaks divine and ecclesiastical law, but it is also public criminal behaviour. The Church does not only live in an isolated world of its own making. The Church lives in the world and with the world. Those who are guilty of criminal behaviour are justly accountable to civil authority for that behaviour. Although the Church is not an agent of the state, the Church recognises the legitimate authority of civil law and the state. Therefore, the Church fully cooperates with civil authorities in these matters to bring justice to survivors and to the civil order.
I know that complications ensue when there are antagonistic relations between the Church and the state or, even more dramatically, when as in some Countries the state persecutes or stands ready to persecute the Church. These kinds of circumstances underscore the importance of collegiality. Only in a network of strong relationships among the bishops and the local Churches working together can the Church navigate the turbulent waters of Church-state conflict and, at the same time, appropriately address the crime of sexual abuse. There is a double need that only collegiality can address: the need for shared wisdom and the need for supportive encouragement. As a college, we should promote justice, repair damage and provide for justice.
In addition to standing for justice, a collegial Church stands for healing. Certainly, that healing must reach out to the victims of abuse. It must also extend to others who are affected including the communities whose trust was betrayed or severely tested.
For effective healing to happen, there must be clear, transparent, and consistent communication from a collegial Church to victims, members of the Church, and society at large. In a case like this there are so many who need healing: the victim first of all, and that should be our prime concern; so does the family, so does the community, so does the parish. But there is also the perpetrator, and his family, his parish, his presbiterium. The immensity of this hurt, the effects of it are so much! In that communication, the Church offers several messages.
The first message, directed especially to victims, is a respectful outreach and an honest acknowledgement of their pain and hurt. Although this would seem to be obvious, it has not always been communicated. Ignoring or minimising what victims have experienced only exacerbates their pain and delays their healing. Within a collegial Church, we can summon each other to attentiveness and compassion that enable us to make this outreach and acknowledgement. As I said from my encounters, I’m convinced we don’t fully comprehend the pain that they go through. We should never really even minimize it.
The second message must be an offer to heal. There are many paths to healing, from professional counselling to support groups of peers and other means as well. In a collegial Church, we can exercise our imagination and develop these various paths of healing which we can, in turn, communicate to those who are hurting.
A third important message is to identify and implement measure to protect young and vulnerable people from future abuse: preventive measures. Again, it takes a collective wisdom and a shared imagination to develop the ways of protecting young people and avoiding the tragedy of abuse. That can happen in a collegial Church which assumes responsibility for the future and plans together for the future.
A fourth and final message is directed to society at large. Our Holy Father has wisely and correctly said that abuse is a human problem. It is not, of course, limited to the Church. In fact, it is a pervasive and sad reality across all sectors of life. Out of this particularly challenging moment in the life of the Church, we—again in a collegial context—can draw on and develop resources which can be of great service to a larger world. The grace of this moment can actually be our ability to serve a great need in the world from our experience in the Church. In history, the Church has often be in the forefront for the defence of values: defence of human rights, rights of migrants, rights of women, rights of the family, rights of the poor. Could the Church become a model and be in the forefront for protection of the rights of the child? And could this influence all of society?
As we face the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Church, as we encounter the suffering of victims, we are never more conscious of our status as the pilgrim people of God. We know that we have not yet arrived at our destination. We are aware that our journey has not been along a straight path. The Second Vatican Council captured this so well in Lumen Gentium: “Already the final age of the world is with us and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect.” (n. 48)
To be the pilgrim people of God does not simply mean that we have a certain unfinished status: that is although the case. To be the pilgrim people of God means that we are a community that is called to be continuously in repentance and continuously in discernment. We are a pilgrim Church, learning from our mistakes, constantly trying to improve, to be faithful to the Gospel. We all make mistakes and we need to learn from them. Complacency, feeling they’ve have arrived, that all is well is the worst enemy to a growth in spirituality, to growth in sanctity, to growth in wholeness. We must repent—and do so together, collegially—because along the way we have failed. We need to seek pardon. We must also be in a process of continuous discernment. In other words, together or collegially, we need to watch, wait, observe, and discover the direction that God is giving us in the circumstances of our times. There is more ahead of us. As the abuse crisis has unfolded, we have come to know that there is no easy or quick solution. We are summoned to move together step by step and together. That requires discernment.
Recently, in a very different context, the bishops of the Congo came together and acted collegially. With great courage and determination, they addressed the social and political challenges of their nation. They did so, not one by one but rather together, collegially. In their mutual and shared support, they brought forth a witness to what lived collegiality can mean and how effective it can be.
As we reflect on the abuse crisis which has afflicted the Church and afflicts the Church, we do well to draw from their example and recognise the power of collegiality and unity in addressing the most challenging issues that face us.
In order for us to move forward with a clear sense of accountability and responsibility in a context of collegiality, there are—as I see it—at least four requisites which I offer for your consideration.
To take up collegiality in order to address our accountability and responsibility, we must:

  • first, claim, or better reclaim, our identity in the apostolic college united with Peter’s successor, and we must do so with humility and openness;
  • second, we need to summon courage and fortitude, because the path ahead is not mapped out with great detail and clear-cut precision;
  • third, we must embrace the path of practical discernment, because we want to fulfil what God wants of us in the concrete circumstances of our lives;
  • forth, we must be willing to pay the price of following God’s will in uncertain and painful circumstances.

Above all, we need to have the humility to admit that we are not perfect. We do not have all the answers, we do not have all the wisdom. We listen to the Church, to our lay faithful as well as they pray for us, advise us and support us in our efforts tomake the Church what she is meant to be: the sacrament of Christ.
I began with quoting from victims; I want to end with this as well. A moment of consolation was when I told one of the victims: “Please, don’t stop loving the Church”. The reply I got was consoling: “I cannot. I will also do all I can for the Church: it is my family”.
And so, to conclude: if we do these things, we will be able to move forward collegially on a path of accountability and responsibility. We need to accept our mistakes. But notice that all these actions are not simply our actions, they are the work of the Holy Spirit: to claim identity or to know who we are, to live with courage and fortitude, to be discerning, and to be generous in service, let the last word therefore be Veni, Sancte Spiritus, veni. Thank you. 

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