One year after global abuse summit, reaction mixed on progress made

ROME - As the Boy Scouts of America slide further into scandal with allegations of widespread sexual abuse continuing to go public, the Catholic Church also finds itself on the public hot seat again one year after a global summit on child protection.

Exactly 12 months after Pope Francis’s historic Feb. 21-24 abuse summit, attended by the presidents of all episcopal conferences worldwide, both survivors and experts have reflected on what the institution has accomplished, and what has yet to be done.

Speaking to Crux, German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who was part of the summit’s organizing committee, called the event “a milestone” in both recognizing and accepting that the abuse of children and vulnerable people is a global problem, and that the Church “must be at the forefront” of developing and implementing best practices for safeguarding.

The head of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection (CCP) and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Zollner said being at the forefront “means to protect children and the most vulnerable among adults and to safeguard their dignity and possibility for growth.”

The priest noted that the Catholic Church isn’t the only institution dealing with this, pointing to the Boy Scouts, which announced on Tuesday it was filing for bankruptcy after dozens of people accused members of the organization of abusing them in a period spanning decades.

Zollner noted the same reactions to abuse - denial and cover-up - is also seen in other institutions, including other faith denominations and public schools.

He cautioned against the Church trying to take the moral high-ground, saying “we shouldn’t think we can teach others now. If somebody wants to work with us to move forward, we are certainly willing to share forces.”

Zollner highlighted several concrete steps the Vatican has taken to promote safeguarding over the past year, including the publication shortly after the summit of new guidelines concerning the protection of minors and vulnerable people.

Published in May 2019 and titled Vos estis lux mundi, new guidelines, among other things, make it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, regardless of their ecclesial status.

Additionally, Zollner pointed to the pope’s decision in December 2019 to abolish the pontifical secret in abuse cases, meaning that from Jan. 1, 2020, onward all documents produced in canonical procedures involving sexual abuse can be submitted, upon request, to competent authorities in a given country.

“This applies both to the documents kept in the Vatican archives and to those found in the diocesan archives,” which were also previously subject to pontifical secrecy, he said.

Yet while Zollner is optimistic about the progress made, survivors have criticized the pope for not doing enough, saying the same patterns are still happening after the summit.

“The pope has the ability, has the power, to command every bishop in the world to report sexual abuse to civil society. Presently, it’s up to the bishops to decide, or not to decide, in relation to civil law.,” said Tim Lennon, an abuse survivor and president of the Survivors Network of the Abused by Priests (SNAP).

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