Following summit, Church will focus on 8 points in ‘all-out battle’ against abuse

By Courtney Grogan/Catholic News Agency

At the closing of the Vatican summit on sexual abuse, Pope Francis outlined eight points that the Church will focus on in an “all-out battle” against the sexual abuse of minors to, he said, “turn this evil into an opportunity for purification.”

“We need to recognize with humility and courage that we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable, for they are an image of Jesus,” Pope Francis said Feb. 24 following the Vatican summit’s closing Mass in the Sala Regia.

“For this reason, the Church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside the Church,” he continued.

The pope’s closing address for the Vatican sex abuse summit Feb. 21 – 24 was filled with statistics on the overall phenomenon of all child sexual abuse worldwide, most of which occurs within the context of the family, Pope Francis pointed out. However, these statistics can only provide explanation of the phenomenon, but not the meaning behind the acts, the pope said.

The meaning behind child sex abuse comes from “the present-day manifestation of the spirit of evil,” he said, later adding that consecrated persons who commit such crimes become “tools of Satan.”

“Today we find ourselves before a manifestation of brazen, aggressive and destructive evil,” he said. “We need to take up the spiritual means that the Lord himself teaches us: humiliation, self-accusation, prayer and penance. This is the only way to overcome the spirit of evil. It is how Jesus himself overcame it.”

Building upon the World Health Organization’s “Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children,” the pope presented eight guidelines to aid the Church in “developing her legislation” on the issues.

The eight guidelines can be summarized as follows:

  1. A “change of mentality” to focus on protecting children rather than “protecting the institution.”
  2. A recognition of the “impeccable seriousness” of these “sins and crimes of consecrated persons.”
  3. A genuine purification beginning with “self-accusation.”
  4. Positive formation of candidates for the priesthood in the virtue of chastity.
  5. Strengthening and reviewing of guidelines by episcopal conferences, reaffirming the need for “rules.”
  6. The accompaniment of those who have been abused with an emphasis on listening.
  7. Ensure that seminarians and clergy are not enslaved to an addiction to pornography.
  8. Combat sexual tourism around the world.

“The Church’s aim will thus be to hear, watch over, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten children, wherever they are,” Pope Francis said.

“To achieve that goal, the Church must rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones,” he continued.

The pope said that, “the brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.”

Twice in his speech, the pope highlighted “the scourge of pornography” and its influence on violence against minors.

We need to “encourage countries and authorities to apply every measure needed to contain those websites that threaten human dignity,” Pope Francis said, adding that the Church should consider raising the age limit of the crime, specified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 of “the acquisition, possession or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors” to above its current limit of 14 years old.

“I would like to stress the important need to turn this evil into an opportunity for purification,” Pope Francis said, thanking priests and faithful Catholics who have silently and faithfully lived out their vows of celibacy.

“The best results and the most effective resolution that we can offer to the victims, to the people of Holy Mother Church and to the entire world, are the commitment to personal and collective conversion, the humility of learning, listening, assisting and protecting the most vulnerable,” he said.

“In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides, encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry,” Pope Francis said.

The pope made “a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth.”

Later in his Angelus address, Pope Francis reflected on the Gospel’s emphasis on mercy and loving one’s enemy. He stressed that “if our hearts are open to mercy … we proclaim before the world that it is possible to overcome evil with good.”

Featured photo by Franco Origlia | Getty Images

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.