Mexico conference aims to help Latin America fight abuse in the Church

By Inés San Martín
July 24, 2019

In this file photo, Pope Francis delivers his message during a conference on the interreligious dialogue at the Jesuits house in Naples, Italy, Friday, June 21, 2019.
Photo by Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis wants an “apostleship of prevention” when it comes to abuse, he said in a new video.

“Any person, a lay man or woman, a religious man or woman, a priest, a bishop, who prevents children from reaching Jesus must be stopped while we’re still in time, or punished if they’ve committed a crime,” Francis said in a video he sent last week to the 170 participants of a five-week program on abuse prevention at the Pontifical University of Mexico.

The course, ending July 27, was organized by the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Formation for the Protection of Minors (CEPROME), which works with the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

“As a comparison though it’s not a nice one: Drugs,” Francis said, noting that though it takes much effort, a person who’s addicted to drugs can be cured, and it’s important to try to do so. “But the question is how do you prevent children from doing drugs? Here the question is, how do we prevent children being abused? The apostleship of prevention.”

When it comes to the Catholic Church, he said, children must be protected so that “no one - not a single person - abuses them, that no one might keep them from coming to Jesus.”

In the three-minute video shared on Facebook by the Pontifical University of Mexico, Francis also says that abuse is a “grave problem, a problem we all know, the shame it has brought on us as a church that our members have committed these crimes.”

But the five-week seminar is important “not only for this reason,” but for all children, “so that no one abuses them.”

When it comes to the need to focus on prevention, Francis gave the example of St. John Bosco, who promoted what is now known as the Preventive System, which according to Francis was “much criticized” at the time.

“You never know where a child will be abused, where he will be driven off path, where he’ll be taught to do drugs, which is a way of corruption,” the pope said. “Let’s not think only about sexual abuse. Any kind of abuse [should be prevented].”

The “preventive system” used throughout the Salesian schools is based on three pillars: Reason, religion and loving kindness, and was Bosco’s response to what he dubbed the “repressive” education system.

Francis’s video was shown on week three of the five-week seminar. Experts have come from various countries, including the United States, and among them is Father Jordi Bertomeu, a Spaniard from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who played a key role in uncovering the abuse crisis in the Chilean Church.

Father Daniel Portillo, director of CEPROME, told Crux that the idea for the seminar came from the fact that in many Latin American countries, prevention is still at “elementary stages” and the course is a way to cooperate with other countries.

Addressed to diocesan vicar generals, seminary formators and experts at the service of diocesan offices, this first edition has a capacity enrollment of 170 students: Over 150 people from Mexico and other Latin American countries had also applied, and the center is hoping to organize a second edition in January.

“The entire subcontinent is represented, with the exception of Panama and Costa Rica,” Portillo said.

Each Wednesday, participants hear from an abuse survivor, “so that we never lose sight of who we’re serving,” he said, noting that the experts addressing the seminar are from fields including clinical medicine, pastoral attention, and canon and civil law.

Another reason for creating a course aimed at all of Latin America - the first two editions were just for Mexico - was to “create synergies and to identify people in each country who are interested and available for working on these issues permanently, creating a spirit of subsidiarity among bishops’ conferences,” the priest added.

“Regrettably, we cannot deny the reality of abuse in Latin America, and we need to face it head on,” Portillo said. “We need to establish common strategies that are primarily aimed at supporting victims, but also focused on intervention and prevention.”

On this, he said, the entire seminar was “in tune” with what the pope had suggested, a pastoral ministry of trust and prevention, since the two are related.

“We are very interested in generating strategies that help us establish a principle of support based on the reality of Latin America, so that this crisis doesn’t become a disaster at a later date: We need to work together, help one another, support the Church, but above all, bring justice to the victims who have been abused,” Portillo said.

Mexico is home to the world’s second largest Catholic population, after the Philippines, and even though the abuse crisis hasn’t yet exploded as it has in the United States, Ireland, Australia or Chile, it’s not been immune to it: Father Macial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ who died sanctioned by the Vatican for his abuse, was Mexican.

In an exclusive interview with Crux last June, the Vatican’s envoy to Mexico acknowledged that the local Catholic Church still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing clerical sexual abuse, even if much has been done in recent years.

“The attention given to us by the media is very positive, as it forces us to cleanse our church and our hearts,” Italian Archbishop Franco Coppola said. “We need to cleanse the Church of sexual abuse, as well as abuses of power and conscience, of thinking that it’s OK to take advantage of one’s position to commit a crime that has nothing to do with the faith, the Gospel or the Church.”

“It’s a necessary, even if painful purification,” Coppola said.

Last Tuesday, during a Day of Prayer for Victims of Clerical Sexual Abuse organized by CEPROME, Bishop Alfonso Miranda Guardiola, secretary of the Mexican bishops’ conference, called abuse a “cancer” that must be extirpated from the Church.

“Some years from now, perhaps not too many, our generation will be scrutinized by the horrendous sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy in the Church, and we will be evaluated on whether or not we knew how to face it and solve it,” said Miranda, who’s also the coordinator of the Mexican conference council for child protection.

This evaluation, he said, will point to judging “whether we were indifferent, absent, cowardly or negligent; or if we were sensitive, responsible, humble and courageous to apply the changes and corrections that were needed.”

An inadequate way in which the Church has responded to this drama, Miranda said, has been clericalism, which has led to “deplorable behaviors” of sexual abuse, power and conscience.

“Aware of this attitude, we have to admit that many times the Church - in the people of its bishops and superiors - did not know and still, at times, does not know how to behave as it should to deal quickly and decisively with the crises caused by abuse,” he said.

Beyond members of the hierarchy and laity, also attending the day of prayer were abuse victims and their families.

“The damage caused [by abuse] is so deep, the pain inflicted so profound, the consequences of the abuses that have happened in the Church so immense, that we can never say that we have done enough,” Miranda said. “Our responsibility leads us to work every day so that never again are there abuses in the Church, and if there are, so that they receive the punishment and reparation they demand.”



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