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Abuses in Switzerland. Msgr. Morerod (Lausanne-Geneva-Fribourg): “Listening to the victims is always worthwhile”

The number of sexual abuse cases in ecclesial environments reported in Switzerland has increased considerably. The reports refer to episodes occurred in the past. In 2017, 65 cases were reported compared to 24 in 2016 and just 9 in 2012. 90% of the reported facts are prior to 1990. Bishop Morerod, Chair of the Abuse Commission of the Swiss Bishops Conference, said: “When those abuses took place, and I am referring to the past, in many cases it was unconceivable to speak ill of a priest. And even if someone, a child or teenager, said something, whatever he or she said was immediately denied, even inside the family. And so these victims felt bad. They made them feel guilty. But now, to be told: 'It was not your fault. It was our fault', has an impressive psychological effect”

“In December 2016 we celebrated a penitential liturgy and on that occasion we said: ‘If you have something to say, go ahead’. This invitation was a wake-up call for several people.” Monsignor Charles Morerod, Archbishop of Lausanne, Geneva and Fribourg, head of the “Commission d’experts Abus sexuels dans le contecte ecclésial”, thus explained to SIR the sharp rise in abuse case reports received by the Swiss Bishops’ Conference in 2017. The data was presented and analysed by the bishops during their plenary meeting that has just ended. According to the figures, in 2017 there was a steep rise in the number of reports. In 2017, 65 new cases were reported compared to 24 in 2016 and just 9 in 2012. 90% of the reported cases are prior to 1990. Of 283 total cases reported in the period 2010-2017, two thirds of the victims were 16 or younger and one third were adults, with a slight majority of female victims. As regards 301 identified offenders, 80% are men, diocesan priests, ordinary priests or deacons and lay theologians. Women perpetrators, both lay or religious, are involved in only 8.6% of all cases. The figures examined by the bishops analyse in detail the “horrors” committed: 86 cases involve statements or sexually explicit gestures and improper sexual advances; 53 are sexual acts, but without coitus or rape. The most serious cases involve 55 cases of sexual coercion, 15 cases of sexual acts in an addiction relationship, 10 cases of rape and 13 sexual acts on a person incapable of discernment. Finally, 30% of cases of abuse remain undetermined, not necessarily of a sexual nature. “There is no increase in reports of recent cases as these abuses occurred in the past”, said Bishop Morerod. “Today I received a letter from a person who had contacted the Commission; we also met personally. We wrote a letter to this person and today I received the answer. In some cases we see that it is worthwhile meeting in person.”

Why?

Every person is different and the way they react to suffering is also different. Being able to express oneself is important per se and having the possibility of speaking to a Church representative is even more important, like being told: “Please forgive me”, and, even more so, “Yes, it was our fault.” When those abuses occurred – I am referring to the past – in many cases it was unconceivable to speak ill of a priest and even if someone, a child or teenager, said something, whatever he or she said was immediately denied, even inside the family.

“Don’t say these things!”, they would tell them, causing the victims to feel bad.

They made them feel guilty. But now, to be told: ‘It was not your fault, it was our fault’, has an impressive psychological effect.

In the press conference you also said that pleading forgiveness is not enough. Why?

I have met many victims over the past years and they are very sensitive to words, to repentance. But they also say: “What will you do next? If you do nothing your request for forgiveness will be meaningless. Those are beautiful words, but we want this situation to change.” Economic compensation, although it’s not the main thing, is of help because it’s a concrete token that recognizes our – and not their – responsibility. But they also ask us to ensure that it will never happen again.

If we plead forgiveness and then we continue acting the same way our words become hypocritical statements.

So what are you doing in Switzerland? Which protocols have you adopted?

First of all we invite people to speak out, to report first to state authorities and to us. Then we organize abuse prevention courses that have become mandatory in my diocese for several years already for all people working inside the Church, including Catechists. The courses are held by experts, not necessary Catholics. The course aims to help people know what must not be done, to identify shady situations, to react and provide information and what can be done. In fact, I was told, precisely for this reason many people no longer want to work with youths, not to mention children, because they are afraid. The purpose of our formation courses is also to encourage people to work with the young.

What about the seminarians?

Every seminarian – I’m speaking about my diocese- is followed by a psychologist that supports him. The meeting with the psychologist, in view of a general evaluation prior to ordination, is compulsory. In the past seven years only one seminarian refused to undergo the psychologist’s evaluation. He was expelled from the seminary as a result. Thus it is a “sine qua non” condition.

The guidelines that Swiss bishops have adopted for the episodes of sexual abuse have been tightened. The duty to report the abuse to law enforcement authorities is now mandatory in all cases, including when the victim does not intend to file a report. You have lifted the so-called “right of veto.” Why did you do it?

If the victim does not intend to file a report to a Civil Court we will do so in his/her place. I did it on several occasions. For years. Victims are afraid. But as I always say,

Although filing a report always causes suffering, that suffering will be stronger if in five years we should learn that there have been more victims of the same priest.

So there will be no exception. Everything will be reported to Court?

Two judges told me how important it is to file a report. They told us: “You don’t know all the facts and if you keep the information to yourselves you will prevent us from intervening also in other cases we are already working on, that you have no knowledge about, which prevents us from ascertaining whether the offender is the same person.”

“In this way you can help us give a name to a situation that was mistakenly identified.”

Moreover, law enforcement authorities can do things that fall outside our provinces as bishops, like seizing the priest’s computer or accessing wiretapping, or even simply following that person. We have no right to act in that way. And we must not have any.

In short, you should not act as detectives?

We have no right to be detectives, nor do we have the skills or the knowledge.

Monsignor Morerod, what are your hopes for the future?

We must avoid other cases of sexual abuse today and identify dangerous situations. We must have a deep, personal knowledge of the candidates for the priesthood. But this battle also involves a change in culture. In the past, in Catholic areas of Switzerland, the priest was considered a very important figure. A victim once told me:

“I was abused by the parish vicar while my brother was abused by the parish priest. Our mother was killed by so much suffering.”

She said: “At the time in the places where we lived the parish priest was the king, and so it was impossible to speak out.” These kind of relations feed into power abuse on the part of the priest who has nothing to lose.

Is it the form of clericalism denounced by Pope Francis in the “Letter to the People of God”?

It’s important for the priest to serve without imposing his authority and for the laity it’s important to accept this service for what it is, namely, without ascribing the wrong role to the priest. We must not protect the priests nor the Church’s reputation. The victims and their suffering are our priorities.

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