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On Religion: Sister rises from Africa to confront Catholic abuses

Terry Mattingly
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Terry Mattingly

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that in 2002 alone, The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film — which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 — she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

"Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times?" she asked. "Yes. Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."

Opening the much-anticipated gathering, Pope Francis stressed that the "holy People of God ... expect from us not simple and obvious condemnations, but to prepare concrete and effective measures."

At the end of the conference, he warned his flock that fighting abuse would force them to confront the powers of Hell.

"Brothers and sisters, today we find ourselves before a manifestation of brazen, aggressive and destructive evil. Behind and within, there is the spirit of evil, which in its pride and in its arrogance considers itself the lord of the world and thinks that it has triumphed," said Francis. "In these painful cases, I see the hand of evil that does not spare even the innocence of the little ones. ... Behind this there is Satan."

However, while agreeing that the church must act, the pope said specific plans and penalties would come later, prepared by Vatican officials and the circle of papal advisers who planned the summit. These are complex issues, he argued, and children face many kinds of abuse in the secular world as well as in the church. To address these issues, Catholic leaders must rise above the "ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones," he said.

Openibo was blunter when describing actions Catholic leaders must take to achieve transparency. Using a litany of biblical references, she called for "zero tolerance" when dealing with clergy sexual abuse. She asked if each diocese could be challenged to "gather men and women of integrity: laity, including religious, and clergy" into commissions charged with facing the legal and financial realities linked to this crisis.

After all, "the Spirit of the Lord is upon each of us here" to protect children and "seek justice" for victims, said Openibo. Catholic leaders cannot focus on "protecting our own or keeping silent."

By taking the "necessary steps and maintaining zero tolerance with regard to sexual abuse, we will release the oppressed. ... Let us not hide such events anymore because of the fear of making mistakes. Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by."

Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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