Pope Francis’ highly anticipated summit on sex abuse kicked off on Thursday ― but there appears to be a glaring gap in the official list of speakers.
Of the nine individuals chosen to give presentations and offer recommendations for combating sexual abuse, none have publicly identified themselves as abuse survivors. Nor are any of them advocates representing prominent survivors’ networks.
While victims’ testimonies are woven into the summit during some key moments, there appear to be no sessions wholly dedicated to listening to survivors freely share their demands for concrete action.
This lack of representation for sex abuse survivors at a sex abuse summit would be surprising if it weren’t taking place under the auspices of the Vatican ― a notoriously hierarchical institution exclusively run by men.
“Put very simply, the church is a monarchy and has been for centuries,” Zach Hiner, the executive director of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told HuffPost. “Its hierarchy hasn’t had to be responsive to their essentially powerless constituents.”
“It’s long been and continues to be an extraordinarily insular and secretive and arrogant culture, deeply resistant to change or even discussions of change from those perceived to be on the outside,” he added.
About 190 top-ranking bishops, religious superiors and other Catholic officials from around the world have gathered in Rome this week to attend four days of lectures and workshops meant to help them prevent clerical sex abuse, care for victims and properly investigate crimes in their dioceses.
The unprecedented, high-stakes summit was convened at Francis’ order. It is an attempt to address Catholics’ reawakened concerns about bishops’ mishandling of abuse allegations, after high-profile scandals in the U.S. and Chile toppled several prominent figures.
On Thursday, Francis put forward 21 proposals to help the church fight sexual abuse, including instituting protocols about how to handle allegations against bishops. Some of the proposals would require changes to canon law, the Associated Press reported.
The church won’t be releasing a final document about the summit.
In a statement, SNAP said that some of the points the pope called for echo some of the organization’s demands. But it said the proposals are “toothless” unless Francis is also willing to punish bishops who have failed to act.
“In refusing to discipline those prelates in attendance who have had an active role in covering up and minimizing cases of child sex abuse, Pope Francis sends the message that Bishops and Cardinals are able to openly flout the very policies designed to hold them accountable,” SNAP wrote. “Absent a strong condemnation of those actions and severe punishment meted out by the Pope, it is hard to believe that any guidelines being discussed today — whether we in SNAP believe in them or not — will not simply be ignored as well.”
SNAP, Ending Clergy Abuse and other regional and global networks have spent years advocating on behalf of victims of clerical sexual abuse. These groups have long demanded that the church adopt concrete, across-the-board zero-tolerance policies for abusers as well as the religious leaders who help cover up abuse.
In addition to zero tolerance, SNAP is asking Francis to tell bishops to turn over any documents recording past abuse cases to local law enforcement and stop lobbying against legislative reform that would benefit survivors.
Decades after the clerical sex abuse scandal first made waves in Ireland, Australia and the U.S., bishops and other Catholic religious leaders in parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia are still prone to deny clergy sex abuse happens in their dioceses or downplay the issue, according to The Associated Press.
Survivors from around the world have descended on Rome in droves this week during the summit. Global and regional survivors’ networks appear to be largely shut out of official meetings and instead will be hosting a parallel series of meetings and lectures.
SNAP told HuffPost that it was not invited to attend the summit, although one of its members, Mary Dispenza, attended a private meeting with summit organizers on Wednesday.
“The culture of the clergy is such that they believe they can do everything themselves — police themselves, give us only the info they want ― swear their priests to silence in certain matters,” Dispenza said in an email from Rome. “They don’t want anyone meddling in their secrets. There is just too much for them to disclose.”
In response to questions about survivors’ participation in the summit, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a spokesman on the summit’s communications team, said that organizers “consulted with and received significant input and recommendations from victim-survivors in preparation for the meeting.”
“The organizers have worked very hard to ensure that the participants listened to victims, because that’s crucial to the kind of conversion of heart necessary to finding a path forward here,” he wrote in an email.
Francis asked participants to meet with victims in their home dioceses before going to Rome. Some bishops shared video testimonies about the impact these meetings had on them. Rosica did not answer a question about whether the summit’s organizers have any systems in place to ensure that every summit participant met with victims before heading to the Vatican.
On Wednesday, 12 survivors had a two-hour roundtable with members of the summit organizing committee, which is composed of a few high-ranking prelates. The private meeting was organized by Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, at the Vatican’s request.
Survivors’ participation in the sex abuse summit appears to be limited to a few key moments.
Survivors’ testimonies were woven into the meeting through a recorded video testimonial on Thursday morning. Five survivors, whose names were not released to protect their privacy, shared haunting testimonies about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Catholic officials and about the hierarchy’s apparent indifference to their pain.
One woman from Africa told the assembled bishops that the priest who raped her as a teen forced her to have three abortions.
“He gave me everything I wanted when I accepted to have sex; otherwise he would beat me,” she said in the video, according to the AP.
Another survivor told bishops that they need to collaborate with civil authorities, The New York Times reported.
“Victims need to be believed,” the survivor said.
During the rest of the summit, survivors will be able to speak and share testimony only during certain moments of prayer every day. According to a schedule for the event, their time will be limited to about 15 minutes each.
“This is a working meeting of bishops, and part of that means listening, so they are listening to victim-survivor’s personal testimony every day: three separate presentations, one each day, along with a presentation from victims to start off the meeting,” Rosica wrote.
There are nine people offering official presentations at the meeting. Most are cardinals. Three of the presenters are women. The presenters will be speaking on themes of responsibility, accountability and transparency in slots that appear to be about 30 minutes each.
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines gave a keynote speech on Thursday morning, speaking about “wounds” bishops have inflicted on their flocks through indifference about sex abuse. He has been criticized by victims’ groups for his failure to commit to zero-tolerance policies, The New York Times reported.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sex crimes prosecutor, gave more practical suggestions during his presentation ― advising bishops to cooperate with civil law enforcement, take advice from lay experts, and be transparent about guilty verdicts.
The people of God “should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth,” he said. “We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”
Hiner said he thinks that bishops don’t need to be educated about abuse ― but that instead they must be brave enough to take action against powerful priests and complicit colleagues.
“Sadly, Vatican and other high-ranking church officials’ main goal continues to be to minimize the scandal while appearing to be open and responsive,” he said. “In other words, this meeting, like so many others held by Catholic prelates, is largely about limiting damage, not finding solutions.”