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Pope’s Sex Abuse Summit: What it Did and Did Not Do

Pope Francis celebrates a final Mass with Catholic leaders who traveled to Rome for a four-day summit on preventing clergy sex abuse, Feb. 24, 2019. (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis celebrates a final Mass with Catholic leaders who traveled to Rome for a four-day summit on preventing clergy sex abuse, Feb. 24, 2019. (Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to technical problems, the audio for this story is not currently available.

Pope Francis's summit on preventing sexual abuse was never going to meet the expectations placed on it by victims, the media and Catholics in general.

No new law was announced to punish bishops who try to cover up abuse. No one demanded a worldwide requirement that priests who rape must be reported to police.

On Sunday, in Francis’ final speech at the summit, he even restated the Church’s common complaint of unfair media reporting.

But some things did change during the four-day meeting.

By inviting Catholic Church leaders from around the world, Francis made it clear that all of them are responsible for protecting the children in their care. He also made it clear that they must punish priests who might violate children. And if they do not, they risk punishment themselves.

Francis had strong words for abusers within the Church and those who protect them.

But it was the words from the few women invited to speak at the summit that sent the strongest message.

Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo is leader of her religious order. She shamed the men in the room for their years of silence over the “atrocities”committed by their priests. She warned them that they would be judged for their inaction in the future.

“This storm will not pass by,” she said.

Valentina Alazraki is a Vatican reporter for Mexico’s Televisa. She told men in power that they must decide if they are with the victims or the priests who raped them.

“We have decided which side to be on,” Alazraki told those at the summit. She also warned that, unless Church leaders side with the victims, reporters “will be your worst enemies.”

A speech by Linda Ghisoni, a religious lawyer and a Vatican under-secretary, strongly affected those listening – including Francis. He delivered unplanned remarks about women at the end of her speech.

There was also the emotional testimony of a woman who was raped by a priest for years during her childhood. The experience has left her with mental health problem, including eating disorders, depression and thoughts of suicide.

Her powerful story left the 190 bishops in silence.

Hans Zollner was one of the meeting organizers. He is an expert on sexual abuse in the Church. He said the woman’s speech “really reached the heart level…and if you get to that level, you cannot be as you were before.”

In the coming days, the Catholic Church is expected to release a new child protection policy for the Vatican City State.

It will also release a book of rules for bishops around the world explaining how to investigate and prosecute abuse cases. And, it will establish special groups to offer expert help, especially for dioceses in poor countries that do not have necessary legal resources available.

It also appears that the Church will reconsider the use of “pontifical secret” in abuse cases. This means victims could be able to learn what happens to a priest after an abuse accusation has been made.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna is the Vatican’s longtime sex crimes prosecutor. He told reporters at the end of the summit that there is now an understanding that the “abuse of (children) is an egregious crime, but so too is cover-up.”

He added: “There is no going back.”

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

bishop – n. an official in some Christian religions who is ranked higher than a priest and who is usually in charge of church matters in a specific geographical area

summit n.a meeting among leaders from various groups

complaint – n. a statement that you are unhappy or not satisfied with something

shame – v. to force (someone) to act in a specified way by causing feelings guilt

atrocity – n. a cruel or terrible act

testimony - n. something that someone says especially in a court of law while formally promising to tell the truth

pontifical - adj. relating to the pope or the Vatican

prosecute - v. to hold a trial against a person who is accused of a crime to see if that person is guilty

resources - n. a supply of something (such as money) that someone has and can use when it is needed

egregious adj. a terrible and unforgivable act

diocese – n. the area that is controlled by a bishop in a Christian church​