Wounded Beauty: What a culture of abuse-prevention looks like according to Pope Francis

La Croix International [France]

January 5, 2024

By Christopher Longhurst

In a recent address to Italian Diocesan Safeguarding Officers on the issue of protecting minors and vulnerable people in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis explained what a culture of abuse-prevention looks like. He cited the Prophet Jeremiah: “‘I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ says the Lord.” (30:17) This verse signalled the meeting’s theme of “wounded beauty” in which Francis expanded on three principles to guide the creation of a new culture free not only of silence and coverup around abuse, but free of abuse itself. Those principles were protection, listening, and caring.

Protection means speaking up

What gave Pope Francis’ directive gravity was the danger of good people remaining silent. Francis underlined how safeguarding requires speaking up: “No silence or concealment can be accepted on the subject of abuse.” The pope was adamant that this is “not a negotiable matter.” He explained that by not speaking up even good people can be responsible for abuse continuing. 

Francis also signalled the importance to “pursue the ascertainment of the truth and the re-establishment of justice within the ecclesial community, even in those cases in which certain behaviours are not considered crimes by state law, but are considered crimes by church law.” 

Protecting also means preventing occasions for harm. He indicated that this was only possible through constant training activities aimed at raising awareness and spreading sensitivity towards protection of the most vulnerable.

Protection means listening

The vital skill of listening was the second principle Francis signalled to nurture a new culture of abuse-prevention. To heal wounds and safeguard properly, “you need to know how to listen, putting aside every form of protagonism and personal interest.”

Listening implies the other speaking. When the wounded find the courage to disclose what happened to them, the speaking voice overcomes the silence and the shame. The key is realising that any shame is not the victim’s but the abusers’ and those who covered for them, and those who knew but did not stop the abuse.

An extraordinary aspect of wounded beauty is when the listener who empathises with the wounded is also a victim. This fosters mutual recovery through the art of peer-support where listening compliments speaking up and as a consequence healing takes place.

Francis advised that listening to victims is the necessary step to grow a culture of prevention. That culture would materialize in training the entire community to ensure vigilance and actions that renew trust. He stressed that “listening to the pain of the people who have suffered these dreadful crimes opens up solidarity and pushes us to do everything possible to ensure that the abuse is not repeated.”

According to Pope Francis, listening fosters empathy, the ability to truly feel with the wounded the trauma they experienced, and how the abuse affected not only them, but also their families and the wider community. He explained that listening is a movement of the heart and “a fundamental option for putting at the centre of all our actions those who have suffered or are suffering, and those who are most vulnerable.” Francis suggested that those who are to safeguard get to know those who have suffered, that they actively participate in the pain of the wounded, “directing one’s heart, one’s gaze towards the wounded and most defenceless.”

The pope also connected listening to caring. He said that “knowing how to listen is taking care of the victims.”

Protection means caring

Pope Francis was clear on how to help the wounded heal. “Only by following the path of caring and listening is it possible to heal.” This is a path that requires the courage to speak up. However, that courage is not just for the survivors, but for the whole community, to condemn what happened, and to hold those responsible to account. This aspect of speaking up is a social caring that brings about cultural change.

Francis explained that healing is not for the victims alone. He signalled that those who abused and covered for the abusers have the moral duty to society of a profound personal conversion to make society a safer place for all to live in. While speaking up is the antidote to the victim’s unwarranted shame, all members of society are wounded by the abuse and need to heal. In other words, abuse negatively impacts us all whether we realise it or not. Therefore, healing requires “internal and communal renewal in justice and truth” on the part of all. 

The pope also signalled that the “cure of wounds is a work of justice.” Precisely for this reason it is important to prosecute abusers, even in ecclesiastical courts. Justice for both the wounded and the abusers, together with personal care of the victims, and a sincere desire for cultural change is what will keep us safe.

A duty for all

Therefore, Pope Francis extended safeguarding to not only safeguarding officers, but to all members of the church and society. There is nothing exceptional here because all people have a natural obligation to protect children and the vulnerable. 

The creation of a new culture of protection, listening, and caring was a path forward that Francis indicated we all must take. He highlighted the importance of all the People of God being involved “because the action of protection is an integral part of the Church’s mission in building the Kingdom of God.” According to the pope, to feel challenged for personal and cultural renewal is key, because “we are all called to moral action, to promote and bear witness to closeness towards those who have been hurt by abuse.”

Dr Christopher Longhurst, a Catholic theologian, serves on the executive of the Association of Practical Theology in Oceania, and is lecturer in theology at TeKupenga Theological College of Aotearoa New Zealand.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of La Croix International).