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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Survivors call for 'zero tolerance' towards Catholic Church sex abuse as four-day Vatican summit gets underway
180 participants, including the presidents of 113 bishop conferences from around the world, are expected to travel to Rome.

Pope Francis to canonize Paul VI and Oscar Romero - Vatican Vandeville Eric / ABACA Vandeville Eric / ABACA / ABACA

POPE FRANCIS WILL convene an extraordinary summit in the Vatican today on the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse. 

Amid recent revelations of abuse in countries like Ireland, the USA, Chile and Australia the head of every bishops’ conference has been called to the Papal state to attend this four-day summit.

180 participants, including the presidents of 113 bishop conferences from around the world, are expected to travel to Rome.

Archbishop Eamon Martin is attending the summit as president of the Irish Episcopal Conference and has met with survivors ahead of his trip to Rome. 

Martin also recently published an open letter to Irish Catholics in which he sought their feedback on how they felt about the issue about clerical sex abuse. 

In the open letter, Martin acknowledged that there had been “a lack of adequate response by the Church in dealing with child sexual abuse”.

It’s as yet unclear what exactly will be discussed at the Rome summit but for Irish survivors like Bernadette Howell, the Catholic Church must implement a clear “zero tolerance” church policy towards clerical abuse of any kind. 

“But also, a zero tolerance for the cover-ups that are happening,” Howell told, a representative of Ending Clergy Abuse, a global alliance which has travelled to Rome for the four-day summit. 

“There needs to proper definitions of what [child sexual abuse] is. That also needs to be written into Canon Law so that it becomes part of church law, too,” says Howell, who echoes fellow survivor Marie Collins’ call for clear definitions and universal safeguarding measures for children. 

‘Safeguarding measures’

Of the Rome summit itself, The Vatican has said that it is being organised to give bishops “concrete guidelines for preventing and reporting abuse”. 

As the summit gets underway, however, doubts remain about how willing members of the clergy are to effect change. 

Yesterday, two US cardinals criticised Pope Francis’ approach to the clerical sexual abuse scandal, saying that ”abuse of power” was not to blame but homosexuality.

Meanwhile, Anne Barret Doyle, co-director of, has complained of a “disconnect” between Pope Francis’ strong statements and the pontiff’s actions.

Her non-governmental organisation, as part of ECA, is taking part in a counter-summit of victims in Rome alongside the Vatican summit. 

Irish survivor Collins is clear on what she wants to see emerge from the Rome summit: clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance”. 

“The meaning of ‘zero tolerance’ is taken by the laity to mean that any member of the clergy found to be guilty of abusing a minor will be removed from the clerical state,” Collins has said. “However, those church leaders who give it any attention argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied while others ignore it.”

Like Howell, Collins has called on the Catholic Church to address the vagueness and ambiguity in these two areas by considering an updating of Canon Law.

Speaking to bishops from different countries, Collins has said there “that there are huge variations in their understanding of these terms”. 

Furthermore, Collins has called for a universal safeguarding measures across the Catholic Church to protect minors.

Pope Francis Visits Ireland ABACA / PA Images Pope Francis during his visit to Ireland last year. ABACA / PA Images / PA Images

Ahead of the Rome summit, the ECA has called on the church to address child sexual abuse in the church not just as a parochial problem, but a global one.

The alliance is also calling for the expansion of international, national and local criminal justice investigations along with reforms of sexual abuse civil laws.

‘Air of complacency’

For some Irish survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the church, however, the four-day summit in Rome means little. 

“Many survivors are angry at the Church,” says Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four, an organisation that helps sexual abuse survivors.

“They wouldn’t want anything to do with it. All they would want is to ensure that other children are safe and that the same mistakes are not made again here or anywhere else in the world.”

“I’d say there’s a weariness amongst survivors as to any expectation of real change”. 

While progress has been made to address clerical abuse within the Dublin diocese of the Irish Catholic Church, says Lewis, ”I fear that an air of complacency is setting in” elsewhere in Ireland.

Of the Vatican summit, Lewis says that only when civil authorities become involved does the truth emerge surrounding sexual abuse within the church.

“The Vatican has never really grappled with the fact that it’s an international organisation either,” Lewis has said. “It has relied on local churches to put in place good child safeguarding practices, including mandatory reporting.” 

Lewis has said her biggest concern lies with the developing world where “the church is actually growing unlike in the Western World, where priests and bishops maintain the same unquestioning status that they had here 40 years ago”. 

Unless mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is implemented by the Vatican, “I really feel like we won’t be any further,” she added. 

Howell of ECA has said that, ahead of the summit, she is not confident change will be effected. “I’m trying to be hopeful but I have to admit I’m quite skeptical.”

- With reporting by © – AFP 2019

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