Annual Meeting of the Bishops' Conference of France (23-26 March): Some progress but a long road ahead
At their annual meeting held in Lourdes, French bishops have expressed their shame and accepted responsibility for the decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. However they offer only "financial compensation" to victims while rejecting the legally fraught notions of compensation or reparation.
The conference opened with sessions on "Integral Ecology", the Church's own brand of environmental studies. Those did not attract much attention unlike the closed-door sessions on "Fighting Abuses". The doors were closed to allow bishops to speak "more freely" - with a vague session title that betrays the Church's extreme discomfort. This discomfort and a struggle with words run through a euphemism-laden 12-page "Letter to Catholics" which summarizes the meeting's work on "pedophilia".
In fairness there is an upfront recognition that the Church is not a "Safe House", to use Pope Francis' own words. There have been many "sexual assaults" on minors by priests who abused their authority - including by inspirational and "exemplary" figures who often represented the "modern Church". There is also a welcome recognition that these "acts" were "too numerous" to be carried out by just a few "perverts".
The bishops do not shy away from a bit of whataboutism. They remind the faithful that such "acts", including incest, take place throughout society in situations where a person abuses his/her position of authority to commit the unspeakable.
The Church, and supposedly bishops personally, commit to helping victims "defray costs" of therapy, etc. In a stark contrast with the United States there is no question of ruinous lawsuits/ settlements. While the proposal that church donations be used to compensate victims was met with resistance, the Church's shame does not prevent it from calling upon the "baptized" to express their solidarity by contributing to a special fund dedicated to this purpose.
Still, vexing and ambiguous euphemisms abound in the report and are signs of the Church's insensitivity and delusions. The Church will "accompany" abusers, not punish criminals who have betrayed the moral purpose of their religion. "Accompany" in French has the figurative meaning of "helping along" - but also rather unfortunately the literal meaning of "going with", as in "taking an offending priest from parish to parish".
The bishops have committed each year, on the 3rd Friday of Lent, to a day of prayer in memory of these "acts". Survivors' associations, who demand an end to the culture of sexual abuse in the Church, have insisted on a "memorial" to victims which could be in Lourdes, a place of great significance to catholics. The church is considering attaching to the memorial a "training center" to teach future generations and future priests that it is bad to sexually abuse children. Your Europe Coordinator who lives nearby will regularly go check the progress made on the building.
This is all surrealistic and raises a broader, existential question. How in God's name can an institution which has commissioned the Sistine Chapel, a pinnacle of western art, not understand a simple Commandment: "Thou shalt not rape a child"? How?
For more information, contact SNAP Europe Coordinator, Marc Artzrouni.