VATICAN CITY -- A prominent Nigerian nun blasted the culture of silence that has long kept clergy sexual abuse hidden in the Catholic Church, telling Catholic leaders Saturday that they must transparently admit their mistakes to restore trust among the faithful.
A Mexican journalist followed up, telling the bishops and others at Pope Francis' abuse conference that their collective failure to report abuse and inform their flocks about predator priests made them complicit in the crimes.
In between those admonitions, a German cardinal admitted that church files about abusers had been destroyed, that victims were silenced and that church procedures were ignored -- all in an attempt to keep the scandal under wraps.
Sister Veronica Openibo, Mexican correspondent Valentina Alazraki and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx delivered speeches to nearly 190 church leaders on the third day of the pope's four-day meeting on preventing abuse and protecting children.
The first two days focused on the responsibility of church leaders in tending to their flocks, and on how those leaders must be held accountable when they fail to properly protect young people from predator priests. Saturday was dedicated to issues of transparency and to breaking the code of silence.
Openibo was one of only a handful of women invited to the meeting, and she used her time at the podium to shame the church leaders for their silence in the face of such crimes.
"How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?" she asked. "We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a church."
Alazraki, the longtime Vatican correspondent for Mexico's Televisa, challenged the leaders to decide whether they are on the side of the priests accused of abuse and those who cover up the crimes, or on the side of the victims.
"We have decided which side to be on," she said, warning that unless the leaders side with victims, "journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies."
Marx called for a redefinition of the Vatican's legal code of secrecy and for the publication of statistics about cleric sex abuse. He said such transparency would be a first step toward restoring trust with the faithful.
Benjamin Kitobo, one of more than 100 survivors of clerical sexual abuse in attendance, said he was the only victim he could find representing a country in Africa.
"In some places, it is still life-threatening to speak out," said Kitobo, 51, who says he was abused by a priest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known then as Zaire. Kitobo now works as a nurse in St. Louis.
"No bishop may say to himself, this problem of abuse in the church does not concern me because things are different in my part of the world," said Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, India, who has been criticized for his own handling of cases. "I dare say there are cases all over the world, also in Asia, also in Africa."
Francis demanded that the conference be held to impress on church leaders that sex abuse isn't just a problem confined to a few countries, but rather is one that affects the whole church.
He did so after he botched the case of a cover-up in Chile and after a scandal broke out in the U.S., creating a crisis of confidence in the Catholic hierarchy.
Survivors who have gathered in Rome to protest marched toward the Vatican, shouting "Zero tolerance!"
Among them was Alberto Athie of Mexico, one of the original accusers of the pedophile founder of the Legion of Christ, the Rev. Marcial Maciel. The decadeslong cover-up of Maciel's crimes has been seen by some as a stain on the legacy of St. John Paul II.
"To protect the abusers means 'Don't say it to the authorities, don't say it to the parents, don't say it,'" Athie said.
In her speech, Openibo, the superior of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus religious order, recalled the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, based on the Boston Globe's prize-winning expose of clergy abuse and cover-up that sparked an explosion of cases coming to light in the U.S. in 2002.
It was at least the second time that the film had been referenced positively during the conference -- evidence of a radical change in attitude at the Vatican toward media exposes of sex abuse.
She also told African and Asian church leaders that they must no longer justify their silence about sexual violence by claiming that poverty and conflict are more serious issues.
"This storm will not pass by," she warned them.
Some bishops still claim that abuse is primarily a problem of the West, the result of secularization or corrupted sexual and family values. Other bishops acknowledge that abuse might be a problem in their own backyards but say they are facing other grave crises, including warfare, famine and climate change.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, said that some bishops, during discussion sessions that are not open to the media, have asked why there is a church "obsession" with sexual abuse.
"Bishops from Africa and Asia are saying: 'Well, why are we just talking about sexual abuse? Because abuse in my country takes many forms: child labor, child soldiers,'" Coleridge said. "To come to an agreed approach that embraces all of those cultural differences will be one of the big challenges of the meeting."
Openibo called for talks on controversial issues to address the scandal, including lay participation in the selection of bishops, whether seminaries for young boys are really healthy and why elderly abusers aren't dismissed from the clergy.
Abuse remains a little-discussed issue not just in Africa and Asia, but also in parts of Europe, including Italy, where the dioceses do not automatically cooperate on cases with criminal investigators, and where the many media outlets are reluctant to cover stories that might hurt the church.
But activists say it is in other major Catholic countries -- Brazil, the Philippines, and Democratic Republic of Congo -- where the scale of the scandal remains the least explored and the most potentially explosive. In the Philippines, no priests have been convicted on child-sex crimes, according to Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-founder of a website, Bishop-Accountability.org, that tracks abuse cases.
And in the Congo, there are only a few known cases, including that of Kitobo, who says he was sexually abused for four years by a priest who had been sent to the country from Belgium.
In large swaths of the world, victims are reluctant to come forward because of societal pressures or legal dangers. Kitobo said that in the Congo, the church is deeply ingrained in schooling and in medical care. "The church owns everything," he said.
The Rev. Lambert Riyazimana, a priest in Burundi, said taboos prevent reporting.
"Priests are respected," Riyazimana said. "So it's first of all hard to report if anything happens because it wouldn't be believable in the eyes of the public."
Openibo also praised "Brother Francis" for his honesty in admitting he had erred in an abuse cover-up case in Chile last year. Francis had defended a bishop accused of witnessing and ignoring the abuse of a notorious predator, accusing the victims of "slander."
Alazraki, who has covered the Vatican since the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, urged greater transparency and offered advice about the growing revelations of nuns who have been sexually abused by priests and bishops.
"I would like that, on this occasion, the church play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors," she said at the gathering. "It could be a great opportunity for the church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but abuses of power."
A man and a woman who were sexually abused by priests as young people also addressed Catholic leaders, saying the trauma they suffered has haunted them ever since. The man, speaking at a penitential liturgy Saturday night, said sexual abuse is the greatest humiliation anyone can suffer:
"You realize you cannot defend yourself against the strength of your oppressor. You cannot escape. You must endure it," he said.
The woman, addressing the gathering Friday night, said she had wanted to tell them about her childhood.
"But there's no point, because when I was 11 years old, a priest from my parish destroyed my life. Since then I, who loved coloring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed," she said.
They were not identified to protect their privacy.
Participants expressed appreciation for the lessons of the gathering.
"Everybody is on the same page now: that this is a crime that must be tackled," said Bishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze, president of the Nigerian Bishops Conference.
Information for this article was contributed by Nicole Winfield of The Associated Press and by Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli of The Washington Post.
A Section on 02/24/2019
Print Headline: Catholic leaders rebuked over abuse cover-ups