While the People of God across the globe thank Pope Francis for finally expressing himself in his Aug. 20 letter
on the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, many feel it brings little comfort. Many pious platitudes have already been expressed toward survivors of abuse, but it has not brought about any change in their reality because many abusers continue to be clerics. Sadly, the pope's letter does not say anything concrete about actions to make bishops accountable. We have heard of commitments to put policies in place, but to date nothing seems to have worked. The culture that has created the opportunity for priests to become abusers has never been concretely addressed. It took civil authorities, first in Australia and now in Pennsylvania in the United States, to unearth these horrific crimes that have been kept carefully concealed by the church. Yet Pope Francis says, "If one suffers, all suffer?" Why has the church allowed such suffering to continue for decades, nay centuries?
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In the 21st century, using quick communication that gets people's voices out to the world, survivors have been able to express themselves and be heard. Thanks to the legions of human rights activists around the world who are not necessarily church-going people but who do believe in human dignity and people's unalienable right to be respected and protected, the voices of the abused are being heard. Pope Francis quotes his predecessor, who as Cardinal Ratzinger
during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, identified with the cry of pain of so many victims. Why did he do nothing concrete about this grave concern? This is the sixth year of Pope Francis' pontificate and we still await a credible response from the Vatican to this cancer eating away at the Body of Christ in the church and beyond. Catholics hailed with hope the institution of the commission Pope Francis set up to deal with sexual abuse. But alas it did not work, and Marie Collins, a survivor of abuse who bravely took up the task of serving on that commission, resigned in utter frustration
. Yes, the "filth there is in the church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]" has been left virtually untouched as abusers brazenly continue their "ministry" and destroy innocent lives. Only when this "filth" has been drawn out and exposed by civil authorities and the church is forced to come face to face with its sin, Pope Francis talks about the pain of the victims being felt by the whole church. The arrogance of power and clericalism have been the painkillers in the community and the silencers of victims and their advocates over recent decades as voices have been raised. As long as the painkillers and silencers worked, it was business as usual. Pope Francis speaks about "coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way ... [to] take on the pain of our sisters and brothers." I have been one of those who dared to stand with survivors and speak up on their behalf, but clericalism worked to turn my community against me, to get me marginalized, demonized and ostracized. When I spoke to a bishop about my pain, he said to me, "That is the price you pay for being a prophet." So Pope Francis needs to spell out how exactly he proposes to support those of us who want to be "involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need." He rightly states that "it is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God's People." He added that "to say 'no' to abuse is to say an emphatic 'no' to all forms of clericalism." While prayer and fasting can facilitate change, we need tangible actions to bring to people's consciousness how clericalism works to foster arrogance and cover up the culture of abuse that has thrived in the church. Only such awareness can bring an end to this deep-rooted vice in the priesthood. Without this awareness we as a church will not be able "to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable." To demonstrate seriousness, Pope Francis needs to call on bishops across the world to hold public prayer services of contrition in their dioceses, acknowledging the evil of clericalism that has covered up the crimes of sexual abuse and lack of accountability in the church. It should include prayers for the healing of survivors. At the prayer service the diocese should announce the mechanisms put in place to address complaints of harassment and abuse by priests and the penalties to be imposed on offenders. Only then will the People of God be convinced that Pope Francis is really serious about rooting out this evil. Across the world, survivors and advocates await stern measures to address clericalism and abuse of power in the Catholic Church. Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a freelance writer and advocate for women's issues based in Mumbai.