New pastoral guidelines for the protection of minors. This is the most significant novelty of the Guidelines for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons approved by the Assembly of Italian Bishops last week, along with the “moral” obligation for bishops to report to judicial authorities in the event of child abuse. The document is the result of a three-year effort, first by the Group and then by the National Service for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons chaired by the Archbishop of Ravenna-Cervia, Msgr. Lorenzo Ghizzoni, who in this interview explains the extent of the challenge that the Italian Church has decided to address. Starting with pastoral and formative activity throughout the Country, also with regard to children, to protect the youngest and most vulnerable. This concern must involve the entire Christian community, parishes, dioceses. The damage done to the victims of the abuses, inside and outside the Church, is far too great.
What is the most significant novelty contained in the Guidelines?
The real turning point is the introduction of the obligation for the local ordinary (the bishop, Ed.’s note) to report to judicial authorities if there is a suspected abuse by a cleric. Obviously, after having verified its plausibility. The bishop was already obliged to conduct a so-called “preliminary” investigation, that is, to gather evidence to submit to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, where appropriate, initiate a canonical procedure. However in the Guidelines we also introduced the moral obligation (that is absent in the Italian legal framework), to inform also the judicial authority, which has much more effective means of investigation, that’s the point.Or rather, after having conducted the “preliminary” investigation into the allegation, we encourage the person involved or his/her parents or guardians, if minors, to report the abuse. If they don’t want to then we lodge a complaint, informing the reporting party. If they object, we will ask that this opposition to the complaint be written, properly documented and reasonably justified.
The protection of the minor is paramount …
In fact, we encourage people to report anyone, including priests or other religious. The focus of the entire document is to listen, welcome and give credibility to the victims, not to protect the offending cleric. The physical, psychological, moral and spiritual consequences of these abuses are far too serious. The scars last forever, even in those who manage to reprocess them and speak about what happened.
Is the mandatory reporting clause contained in other guidelines of national episcopates?
In almost all Western societies: in many countries, especially in the north of the world, there is a legal obligation to report these crimes. In Italy, the Church has significantly broadened the scope for the protection of possible victims, accepting a very broad definition of “vulnerable persons” contained in Pope Francis’ latest Motu Proprio, that includes “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want to otherwise resist the offense.”
The Guidelines also address the issue of prevention. What do they envisage with regard to dioceses?
Each diocese should identify a contact person, possibly supported by a small team of experts and professionals, who will assist the bishop in the action of listening. But above all he will deal with prevention, on three levels. The first is in that of parishes, priests and educators, and catechists.
The Guidelines contain pre-prepared materials that the diocese is required to adopt for the formation and information of educators.
There are basic indications and definitions: what is an abuse, a profile of how the abuser could present himself, a vademecum for the selection of educators, the places and times in which an abuse can occur, the revealing signs, etc. … The second level involves the children. If we don’t inform them, who should we inform? UN reports indicate that at the age of 11, children already use mobile phones and therefore have access to social networks (especially Istagram) and websites that can vehicle various forms of abuse, such as sexting, blackmail and grooming. The same UN data also show that 70% of youths use their own mobile phones. Even adults who wish to educate fail to reach out to this world where addiction could cause serious emotional, affective, neurological damage. Education and pastoral care on these issues is also important because it forces educators and parishes to provide education on affectivity and sexuality, which is often underestimated.
And the third level?
We must help the families, who today, in general, and above all with regard to issues such as media education, are experiencing difficulties. If it’s true that a high percentage of abuses occur in the family, this aspect is all the more important and, at the same time, complicated. The subject can be appropriately introduced by involving parents in the prevention of bullying, not least because many episodes of bullying are of a sexual nature, and they occur at an increasingly younger age.
Who will be in charge of this formation?
The diocesan team must initiate the processes. The contact persons in Emilia-Romagna have already started their formation activity and they will work together on a regional level. We see this as a pastoral action: specialists will be needed, but most importantly people from the parishes.
What are the other relevant features of the Guidelines? When will they be published?
We only have to incorporate some indications that the bishops gave us in the assembly and then we will publish them, a matter of weeks. The Guidelines also provide indications on how to accompany the abusers, after the end of the canonical processes and civil proceedings. Obviously if that person is willing. It’s the most delicate moment, because when all is over, these people often leave the Church and the territory in which they committed an abuse. And they are free, and alone.