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Sr. Veronica Openibo, SHCJ - © Vatican Media

Sr. Veronica Openibo, SHCJ: Focus on Mission, not Fear

‘The Church must do everything possible to protect its young and vulnerable members.’

Sr. Veronica Openibo, SHCJ, Elected Leader of The Society of the Holy Child Jesus, spoke to the Summit on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”  on February 23, 2019. Her topic:  Openness to the World as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission. Following is the working translation of her talk provided by the Vatican.

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Papa Francesco,
My brothers and sisters, good morning.

I begin this talk with a quotation from Luke Chapter 4. For me “Openness to the world as a Consequence of the Ecclesial Mission” is the mission statement of Jesus, that we also follow.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and anointed me to preach good news to the poor. The Spirit has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor. Luke 4:18-19

Abstract

For me, as a result of the self-understanding of her mission in the world today, the church needs to update and create new systems and practices that will promote action without fear of making mistakes. Clerical sex abuse is a crisis that has reduced the credibility of the church when transparency should be the hallmark of mission as followers of Jesus Christ. The fact that many accuse the Catholic Church today of negligence is disturbing. The church must do everything possible to protect its young and vulnerable members. The focus should not to be on fear or disgrace but rather on the church’s mission to serve with integrity and justice.

Introduction

The mission of the church flows directly from our deepest understanding of the Incarnation. Catholic Christianity is grounded in the belief in a God who chose to be one with the human world.

The self-understanding of the mission of the church must be a manifestation of the Christ we know as both human and divine. The whole of Christ’s mission was to reveal who God is and who we can become. This implies a total acceptance of all that is human andall that the power of God’s grace does to transform us into being witnesses of the divine. Our world-view, if Christian, must be based on respect and dignity for each human being.

At the present time, we are in a state of crisis and shame. We have seriously clouded the grace of the Christ-mission. Is it possible for us to move from fear of scandal to truth? How do we remove the masks that hide our sinful neglect? What policies, programs and procedures will bring us to a new, revitalized starting point characterized by a transparency that lights up the world with God’s hope for us in building the Reign of God?

Throughout the time of writing this presentation, my eyes were cloudy and I wondered what this could mean. Then I remembered the first time I watched the movie Spotlight – you all…some of you know it – the 2016 American biographical drama about the investigation by the Boston Globe in the America’s Boston, the cover-up by ecclesial authorities.

At the end of the film was a long list of cases and the dioceses where they occurred and reading about the number of children affected (and also later seeing the vast amount of money spent on settlements), tears of sorrow flowed. How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?  The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses – we had one last night  and the constant transfers of perpetrators are all unimaginable. Presumably, there were significant signs in the confessional and in spiritual direction: I want to believe that. With a heavy and sad heart, I think of all the atrocities we have committed as members of the church: I am saying “we”, not “they”: “we”. The Constitutions of my own congregation reminds me: In Christ, we unite ourselves to the whole of humanity, especially to the poor and suffering. We accept our share of responsibility for the sin of the world and so live that his love may prevail. (SHCJ Constitutions #6). I think all of us must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place that we find ourselves as a church. We pause to pray Lord have mercy on us!

In Gaudete et Exsultate (164) we read that Those who think they commit no grievous sins against God’s law can fall into a state of dull lethargy. Since they see nothing serious to reproach themselves with, they fail to realize that their spiritual life has gradually turned lukewarm. They end up weakened and corrupted. Let us no say “they”: it is all of us. So many aspects of this statement from Pope Francis stand out for me on the issue of child abuse, as also these sentences from the PCB Preparation Document: A church that is closed/shut off is no longer church. Her mission would be thwarted. It’s not about giving up principles and secularizing the church, it’s about living visibly and perceptibly what we claim to be, or what and how we really are.

Yes, we proclaim the Ten Commandments and ‘parade ourselves’ as being the custodians of moral standards/values and good behaviour in society. Hypocrites at times?  Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelise, catechise and educate all the members of the church, including the clergy and religious? I often ask myself: Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? I want to believe, and from that, I have read, some did act and some did not out of fear or cover-up.

We might say the church is now taking steps to arrest the situation but also to be more transparent about all the steps it had been taking privately over two decades, such as meeting with victims of sexual abuse, reporting cases to the appropriate civil authorities and setting up commissions, and many other things. The question today is more about how to address the issue of the sexual abuse of minors more directly, transparently and courageously as a church. The hierarchical structure and systems in the church – I believe– should be a blessing for us to reach the whole world with very clear mechanisms to address this and many other issues. Why has this not happened enough? Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, misuse of money, clericalism – we felt that many times –, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the clerical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?

Reflection

I would like to offer some reflections based on my experience as an African woman religious. I have lived in Rome for fifteen years – as a nun – and studied in America for three. So, I am familiar with these issues in the Global North. Probably like many of you, I have heard some Africans and Asians say, many Africans and Asians say that ‘this is not our issue in countries in Africa and Asia, it is the problem in Europe, the Americas, Canada and Australia.’ However, I worked throughout Nigeria in the area of sexuality education for nine years and heard the stories and counselled many people. In fact, one of the bishops, the first to invite me to his diocese, to speak with him, have a workshop with him, and he is a priest, he is present here: our bishop Akubeze. So, he saw the need and invited me. I realized how serious the issues were and still are and sharing a few of my personal experiences emphasise this fact. In the early 90s a priest told me there were sexual abuses in the convents and formation houses and that, as president of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious, I should, please, do something to address the issue. A second priest in the early 2000s said that a particular ethnic group practiced a lot of incest , what I added to him: that from my personal experience incest is a world issue. A dying old man revealed to me he was acting strangely because of the sexual abuse he experienced as a teenager from the priests in his school. And recently I have heard from somebody, “I know that person, I have the same experience”. So, it must have been something that was going on in this school for years: the same school. A thirteen-year-old girl met her priest attacker 25 years later and he did not recognize her…

These are just short stories.

Transparency

– So, let us not hide such events anymore because of the fear of making mistakes. Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass. Our credibility as a Church is at stake. I think Jesus told us, gives us a very strong statement: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe [in me] to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9:42. So, my dear brothers and sisters, we must face this issue and seek healing for the victims of abuse. The normal process for clergy – in the past and still in the present in some areas – was and is to give support to ‘one of us’, to avoid exposing a scandal and bringing discredit to the church. I told my group yesterday. I used to use three “s”: “secrecy”; “silence”; and the last one is “solidarity” for men, and support for one of us. Women is the same, but the third one is different, you can ask me later… We must face this issue and seek healing for the victims of abuse. The normal process, as I said, is the support for men, but we find a way together. All offenders, I want to say, regardless of their clerical status, found guilty should be given the same penalty for the abuse of minors.

– Let us have courageous conversations rather than saying nothing to avoid making a mistake. I like this statement: We can make a mistake but we are not created to be a mistake and posterity will judge us for not taking action. The first step towards true transparency is to admit wrongdoing and then to publish what has been done – I repeat: we publish what has been done, and I think some of it has been published already. But we have to make it public – what has been done since the time of Pope John Paul II to heal the situation. It may not be enough or sufficient in the eyes of many but it will show that the church had not been totally silent.

– We must build more effective and efficient processes, based on research in human development – we use here human for mission –as well as civil and canon law, for the Safeguarding of Minors. Then give clear and comprehensive safeguarding policies and guidelines in every diocese that should be placed visibly in various parish offices and published on the internet. There must be better handling of the cases through face-to-face, transparent and courageous conversations with victims and offenders, where possible, as well as investigating groups. In many parts of the world, including countries in Africa and Asia, not saying anything is a terrible mistake as we have seen in many countries. The fact that there are huge issues of poverty, illness, war and violence in some countries in the Global South does not mean that the area of sexual abuse should be downplayed or ignored. The church has to be pro-active in facing it. I have read through some of the papers that were given out to us, in various parts of the world, many dioceses and conferences have written books. I didn’t see Nigeria in it. What I know, I worked with some of the booklets that the bishops produce in Nigeria: “call to love”, “I chose you”, “Guidelines for processing abuse of minors and vulnerable adults”. We need more of such in many parts of the world.

– The excuse that respect be given to some priests by virtue of their advanced years and hierarchical position is unacceptable. This argument states that many of the criminal offenders are old, some no longer alive, and that we should not hurt them or their reputations by taking away their priesthood in old age. We can feel sad for those who, when they were younger  committed offences that are now being brought out to the open. But my heart bleeds for many of the victims who have lived with the misplaced shame – we had that yesterday – misplaced shame and guilt of repeated violations for years. In some of these areas the offenders did not even see these victims as persons but as objects.

– It is true, as a church, that we believe in repentance of the sinner, in conversion of hearts and the grace of transformation, as Jesus said to the woman caught in the very act of adultery: “Go and from now on do not sin any more.” says Jesus (John 8:1-11). This can create a strong dilemma for some, especially when we know that abusers have often been victims themselves. Do we need to probe deeply what we mean by justice with compassion? How can we help create the environment for prayer and discernment for the grace of God to enlighten us in the way of justice so that transformation and healing may take place for both victims and, I want to say, offenders? We would need to find out where throughout the world (not only in wealthier countries), are the best practices for doing this being developed and can we implement them? Many of these are to be found within the church. I think we have heard that in many of our small groups.

– In publishing the names of offenders, can we publish a complete set of information regarding these situations?

I want to suggest some strategic way forward

Strategic Way Forward

– It is becoming evident that victims that were listened to and helped psychologically and spiritually were healed.  Can we train enough sensitive and compassionate people to offer this service in all countries including those places struggling to put food on the table? Are there ways of helping parishes heal victims using their traditional wisdom? Do we make use of preaching and other means to address sexual issues in society? How might dioceses share in a strategic way in providing culturally-sensitive education programs and training kits? Such materials, respecting the dignity of the human persons and emphasizing all unacceptable behaviours, could be used in parishes and schools, hospitals and other places of pastoral ministry. The UISG has promised that in the statement they made.

– How can we continue to address in very concrete ways the issues of prostitution and trafficking on an immense scale as well as personal infidelity and promiscuity around the world? There must be Catholics, alongside others with similar principles, in positions of influence in, for example, the film industry, TV and advertising. They could be encouraged to come together and reflect on their role in promoting a better view of the human person. Let there be a focus on society’s disservice to men in every patriarchal culture in the area of sexuality. From studies, I have discovered, and many have discovered, that for a long time society has accepted promiscuity, infidelity, especially in marriage for men, what is changing… thanks God! Let us investigate how better to use social media to educate people on the whole area of sexuality and human relationships.

– I want to say here: essential, surely, is a clear and balanced education and training about sexuality and boundaries in the seminaries and formation houses; in the ongoing formation of priests, religious men, and women and bishops. It worries me when I see in Rome, and elsewhere, our country included, the youngest seminarians being treated as though they are more special than everyone else, thus ideas about the statusexalted ideas about their status. This is encouraged because they assume they have already high status. The study of human development, human for mission, must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminariesI want to repeat that: the study of human development, human for mission, must give rise to a serious question about the existence of minor seminaries.  The formation of young women religious, too, can often lead to a false sense of superiority over their lay sisters and brothers, that their calling is a ‘higher’ one. What damage has that thinking done to the mission of the church? Have we forgotten the reminder by Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes of the universal call to holiness? In addition, we need to ask responsible and sensitive lay people and women religious to give true and honest evaluation of candidates for episcopal appointments.

– Could each diocese be challenged to gather men and women of integrity: laity, including religious, and clergy, to form a joint commission sharing expertise about the documentary procedures and protocols, the legal and financial implications of allegations and the necessary channels of responsibility and accountability? A well-qualified person – lay, religious or priests is likely to be the best chairperson of such a group. In addition, they need to work out how best to face the serious issues of sexual abuse already exploding in some Asian and African countries in the same way that it has already elsewhere.  Many people who were sexually abused by priests or others in pastoral positions will suffer as traumatic memories are evoked. Some people will be reminded that they could well be revealed as former or current abusers or accused of covering up such facts. Many in various forms of ministry will come across people, family members, adults and/or children, who have been or are being abused and need to know how to respond appropriately. Some allegations will be false which causes suffering of another kind. The impact of damaged faith in the church cannot be under-emphasized as a large number of Catholics are and will be angry and confused. We have seen that in some part of the world. People in positions of some authority also need to know what to say or do in terms of response when issues get to the media or to the press.

Conclusion

We know that the greatest issue is the proclamation of the gospel in a way that will touch the hearts of the young and old. We are called to proclaim the good news but we must BE good news to the people we serve today. No wonder Pope Francis has declared the month of October 2019 The Extra Ordinary Missionary Month. I come back to my opening passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and anointed me”.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and anointed me to preach good news to the poor. The Spirit has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour. Luke 4:18-19

As an indicator or postscript, I emphasise the following:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon  each one of usand especially those present here.

has anointed all of us. We have heard that during the reports from groups that yes, we are here for serious business and issues have been taken care of.

to preach good news to the poor, the poor beingthe vulnerable, protecting especially defenceless children, seeking justice for the victims of abuse and taking steps to prevent this abuse from recurring.

to proclaim deliverance to the captives, for me the perpetrators are in need of deliverance, conversion and transformation, and we should not forget that.

and recovery of sight to the blind   those who are not seeing the issues, even some of uspresent here, or focusing on protecting ‘our own’, or keeping silent or covering up need recovery of sight

to release the oppressed and to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour    by taking the necessary steps and maintaining zero tolerance with regard to sexual abuse we will release the oppressed. This is our year of favour let us courageously take up the responsibility to be truly transparent and accountable.

Returning to the title of this conference, I just want to say one passage that has inspired me is:

You are the light of the world – I think we are the light like that this morning in the prayer – A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. 

I read with great interest many articles about the Pope’s reactions in the case of the Chilean bishops – I think you remember the story –  from a denial of accusations, to anger because of deception, the Pope felt, and the cover up, to the acceptance of resignations of – I thought three, but I red again two of the bishops. I admire you, Brother Francis, for taking time as a true Jesuit, to discern and be humble enough to change your mind, to apologize and take action – this is an example for all of us.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for providing this opportunity for us to check and see where we have acted strangely, ignorantly, secretly and complacently. I believe we will change, with great determination, our total approach to reporting abuse, to supporting the victims, to getting the right people to mentor and give support to victims and, above all, to doing what we can to protect minors and vulnerable adults from any form of abuse. Thank you, too, for providing women religious, through the executive of the Union of Superiors General (UISG), an opportunity to participate in this conference. This is the first time ever that we have had all the members of the executing of the women come to a meeting like this. Usually, the men come, but the women we were “pick three people and it must be this, this, this…”. Women have acquired a lot of useful experience to offer in this field and have already done much to support victims – there are women who are also offenders – and also to work creatively on their own use of power and authority.

I hope and pray that at the end of this conference we will choose deliberately to break any culture of silence and secrecy among us, to allow more light into our church, as a model Church. A model takes care of the children and continues to be a model to take care of the children. Let us acknowledge our vulnerability; be pro-active, not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society.

I want to end with this, by reminding ourselves of Pope Francis’ own words: A Christian who does not move forward has an identity that is ‘not well… The Gospel is clear: the Lord sent them out saying: ‘go, go forward’! The Christian walks, moves past difficulties and announces that the Kingdom of God is near.

I pray: we will move forward, pass these difficulties. Surely.

Thank you.

  [Vatican-provided text]

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