The French bishops were the first, followed by the Swiss bishops. Small, tentative signs of a Church in Europe that is showing its determination to break the code of silence and come out in the open. Following the explicit invitation of Pope Francis the French and Swiss bishops have decided to simultaneously dedicate their plenary meetings to ask forgiveness to the victims of sexual abuses committed by members of the clergy, all the more serious given the pastoral relationship of total trust between the offenders and their victims.
Whenever cases of paedophilia are uncovered they immediately become the object of major attention.
It happened in France this year, with searches and interrogations, many of which lasted more than 10 hours. The bishops were called to answer before the law even for cases that took place many years ago, which they are not directly responsible for. Not to mention Countries like Ireland and England. The more the competent authorities attempted to cover the “scandal” in the past, the more the Churches are being vilified, hated, even to the point of being feared today. It took time to deal with the shock and confusion but in the end – thanks to Benedict
XVI, the first to take a firm stand against this phenomenon – the way of the truth, the humble recognition of the sins committed, of human justice, appear to prevail, albeit still tentatively yet ever more extensively.
Thus at the beginning of November in the shrine of Lourdes the bishops prayed and fasted for the victims of abuse. Off-camera, in an atmosphere of deep silence and authentic repentance, they asked forgiveness for every time that Church representatives closed their doors; for every time that the Church sought to “preserve the respectability of her public image”, preferring the code of silence to justice. Forgiveness “for our silence and passivity.”
On December 5 Swiss bishops will gather in prayer in the Valère Basilica in Sion, humbly asking for forgiveness on the eve of their ordinary assembly. They will be joined by the Major Superiors of religious Congregations and by a delegation representing the victims of abuse. They will pray to the Lord “to help them heal their wounds” and support “all efforts aimed at eliminating this serious sin from all Church structures and behaviours.”
In the reports drawn up in English the victims of sexual abuse are defined with the term “survivors.” The violence inflicted affects the victim at a very deep level often causing psychological damage that is very hard to recover from. Their personal accounts – repressed, often even unexpressed – are dark roads scarred by suffering, shame, dependence, depression, which in some cases lead to suicide.
Forgiveness does not liberate from the cage in which the victims have plunged. It doesn’t alleviate their pain. It doesn’t erase memory. But it opens a glimmer of light to being listened, believed, acknowledged; to shed light on the past and bring to the fore the sin and the sinner in truth and justice.
It’s a “long process” that requires time and discretion. These are the two preferential criteria. This path has been followed by the Churches of France, Belgium, Ireland and England. Wide-reaching coordinated networks – consisting in multi-disciplinary committees, local counsel centres, websites and dedicated email addresses – were activated for listening to the victims, reporting the cases of abuse and ensuring human justice. To date the email address opened by the Church of France has received one hundred letters testifying cases of abuse. Swiss bishops will share the latest data during the assembly in Sion; as the Belgian and Irish bishops have always done. Indeed, the numbers have reached stratospheric heights. The extension of this phenomenon is far bigger than previously imagined. The request for forgiveness is but the beginning of a serious process leading to the truth. If not, it’s only rhetoric. Yet, it ushered in a new path that is worthwhile undertaking in courage.