Mea maxima culpa


I went to Rome last week. The occasion was an important conference organized by the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, in association with Telefono Azzurro. Translated literally Telefono Azzurro means “Blue Telephone” signifying their origins as a helpline for children. Today Telefono Azzurro is a children’s rights organization that works across a wide range of headings. It is actively engaged with the online space. Judging by the galaxy of Italian big wigs who turned out Telefono Azzurro is also quite obviously extremely well connected.

News of the Directive

The meeting took place just opposite the Piazza Navona in the glorious Palazzo Madama, now home to the Italian Senate. A string of politicians and Ministers from the Italian Government were both in attendance and speaking. Roberta Angelilli MEP took us through the recently concluded struggle within the institutions of the European Union to win the Directive on sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.

Distinguished Speakers

Dr Sharon Cooper, Forensic Paediatrician from the University of North Carolina was her usual, and by that I mean stellar, self, and it was hugely encouraging to hear from Pavel Astakhov, recently appointed (2009) Commissioner of Children’s Rights for the Russian Federation, a position created by President Medvedev. We also heard from Dr Patricia Simmons, Chair of the Mayo Clinic’s Division of Paediatric and Adolescent Gynaecology and Executive Medical Director of Health Policy. Dr Simmons cast her white coat and stethoscope to one side for a few moments so she could roll up her sleeves to promote an impressive series of new laws to counter trafficking in children in the state of Minnesota in the USA. And then there was world renowned artist Jeff Koons. It’s not every day you get to listen to a genuine celebrity speak with such erudition on a subject he appears also to understand. Take a bow Jeff Koons, member of the ICMEC Board and a big contributor to its work.

The Declaration of Rome

The conference adopted the Declaration of Rome which sets out a series of substantial challenges to Governments across the world. One of the objectives of the Declaration is to convene a meeting of Heads of State, world business leaders and other world figures to focus specifically on how we might all, collectively, move this agenda forward. I await developments with interest. Having been involved on the edges of something like this before I know what a monumental effort it takes to pull it off. I agree it is very much overdue.

The Vatican speaks

However, and I am sure none of the other speakers will mind if I say this, I found the most electrifying moment at the conference was the presentation made by the representative of The Vatican. The Irish branch of the Catholic Church was, for me, a key formative influence. I was an altar boy, a chorister, I attended a Jesuit school and have two cousins who are priests: one in rural Ireland, one now in Rome. I know a little about the pain and the angst which all the revelations about child sex abuse within the Church have caused the hundreds of millions of devout Catholics around the world. I also know how that pain and angst were compounded and amplified in many dioceses by the hierarchy’s crass mismanagement of discovered cases.

Against that background I was astonished, and pleased, when I saw that Monsignor Charles Scicluna was scheduled to speak. Images of Daniel in the Lion’s Den sprang to mind. Moreover it quickly became apparent as the Monsignor’s speech progressed that this was no ordinary, perfunctory or diplomatically dutiful peroration. This was a major statement of The Vatican’s take on the whole sorry business and the Church’s culpability. Gratifyingly, the Vatican News also chose to promote the Monsignor’s speech as its lead story that day. I gather it was taken up extensively in the Italian media although I found few references to it elsewhere.

Modern Inquisition

Monsignor Scicluna glories in the title of Promoter of Justice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In days gone by this body was known as The Inquisition. Today the Monsignor’s role, inter alia, is to prosecute paedophile priests and errant prelates under Canonical Law. I imagine The Inquisition has now abandoned some of the methods of interrogation for which it became famous in the 15th and 16th Centuries but the razor sharp brain of the Monsignor might be no less fearful a weapon.

You can read the full text of the scholarly address on the Vatican News web site. It is peppered with extracts from Papal letters and quotes from the Bible. There were references to the well-being of the child being of paramount importance, to the fact of child abuse being a major wrong, to empowerment issues, screening, care for victims and for perpetrators. Below I pick a few of the Monsignor’s remarks which I thought were of particular interest:

Some key points


The first step in empowerment of children and families is education. The child needs to be made aware of his or her proper dignity. Children need to be taught, according to their age and mental prowess, to protect themselves from the unjust intrusions of others. Families and local communities need to be educated in the care of the young among them…..


The second step in empowerment is the ability to verbalize and disclose abuse. The duty and right to disclose abuse to higher authority is incumbent on the parents or tutors of the minors concerned. Where ministers of religion are concerned disclosure may be complicated by ill-informed and misplaced considerations of loyalty and belonging. Sacred power rightly generates sacred trust. Unfortunately and wrongly it may generate fear to disclose crimes by religious leaders. The empowerment of the community in this context means the ability to denounce abuse of sacred power for what it is: a betrayal of trust.

Co-operation with State Agencies

Sexual abuse of minors is not just a canonical delict or a breach of a Code of Conduct internal to an institution, whether it be religious or other. It is also a crime prosecuted by civil law. Although relations with civil authority will differ in various countries, nevertheless it is important to cooperate with such authority…(and) “without prejudice to the sacramental internal forum [the seal of confession], the prescriptions of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the designated authority should always be followed. This collaboration, moreover, not only concerns cases of abuse committed by clerics, but also those cases which involve religious or lay persons who function in ecclesiastical structures.”

Welfare Principle in Decisions concerning Personnel

Institutions concerned with the misconduct of their Agents are faced with the dilemma of what future role, if any, they should give to perpetrators of abuse. The welfare of children and of the community must be the paramount criterion in decisions concerning such personnel. Perpetrators who are not able to observe set boundaries forfeit their right to roles of stewardship in the community.

Drawing to a close

The Catholic Church is not by any means the only religious institution to have been afflicted by child abuse scandals but to speak of such things in Rome felt strangely cathartic whilst at the same time being tinged with a doleful poignancy. For everyone’s sake, not least for the sake of the great fighters for children’s rights within the Catholic Church, such as Monsignor Scicluna, we must all hope this inglorious chapter is drawing rapidly to a close.

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