Vatican nun sees synod process as key to preventing more sexual abuse in Catholic Church

The Australian [Surry Hills, Australia]

February 4, 2023

By Helen Trinca

The synod process heavily criticised by the late cardinal George Pell could hold the key to preventing a recurrence of the “shocking” historical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, according to the most senior woman working at The Vatican.

In Sydney on Friday, Sister ­Nathalie Becquart, an ­adviser to Pope Francis, would not be drawn on Pell or the “culture wars” emerging here and overseas between progressive and conservative ­Catholics.

But she said the emphasis on synodality – a process in which lay Catholics are included in discussions with priests and nuns and ­religious brothers – was a way to get rid of the clerical model of the church that could lead to abuse of power and sexual abuse.

“We know that all sexual abuses are abuses of power,” she said. “It’s a big issue.”

Before his sudden death last month, Pell wrote a scathing article for the Spectator in which he denounced Pop Francis’s push for synodality as a “toxic nightmare”.

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But Sister Becquart said that the church still had a long way to go to ensure sexual abuse victims were placed at the centre of the church: “It’s not yet everywhere that there has been this process of really listening to victims and recognising (what has taken place).”

Sister Becquart, who was in Australia for seminars organised by the Diocese of Parramatta, said the big challenges for the church were the same issues facing ­society: inequality, violence, climate change and care for creation, and overcoming polarisation.

She was appointed by Pope Francis in 2019 as a consulter to the synod of bishops and since 2021 has been undersecretary to the synod – the first woman to hold this position and the first woman to have voting rights in the synod. The French nun was listed in the BBC’s 100 Women of 2022.

Sister Becquart said that while “many people in the media look at the church through some kind of political lens – left, right, conservative” – the church was not “a political parliament” but recognised and absorbed a diversity of opinion and political opinion.

“We put people into boxes, and that when you meet them, it’s different,” she said.

Is the church big enough to cope with a Pell and a Francis?

“Yes, because from the beginning, you have this diversity … you have four gospels to tell the same story of Jesus with some commonalities, but also with some differences,” she said. “(Having) different views is normal for churches, and it’s how you deal with that. I think we shouldn’t be afraid.”

Sister Becquart said that while lay people were being asked to step up to take a bigger role in the church, they had “inherited” a view of the church as a pyramid with popes and bishops and priests teaching and the laity following.

The Second Vatican Council has empowered Catholics “but we are in a kind of transitional phase, and in the mindset of many people, they haven’t realised (they) are called to be active”.

“We need to continue to empower lay people to help them understand the church is not only the priests and the bishops, the church is also the people,” she said.

Sister Becquart said that the model of the church in countries such as France and Australia, of each parish having a priest, would have to change because of a lack of priests. But in Australia the church had to respond also to the multicultural diversity of the society and its Indigenous people.

She said that the main issue for women in the church (which does not allow women as priests) was “more women leadership in the church, more women involved in decision-making. It’s a strong call coming from everywhere (and) many men, priests and bishops, think we need to foster women’s participation and women’s leadership.”

Gender equality and mutual respect was a problem for society as well as the church: “Even if we see women prime ministers in many countries, we also know with the #MeToo movement that we have a long way to go to get rid of a pattern of abuses of power above women.”

 THE DEAL EDITOR AND ASSOCIATE EDITOR Helen Trinca is a highly experienced reporter, commentator and editor with a special interest in workplace and broad cultural issues. She has held senior positions at The Australian, including deputy editor, managi… Read more