(OSV News) — While the doors of the Synod on Synodality, taking place in the Vatican Oct. 4-29, are closed to journalists and the public, a group of survivors of sexual abuse anxiously awaits news on how the assembly addresses the clerical sexual abuse that affected their lives so painfully.
While OSV News sources say abuse has been mentioned a few times in the first synodal week — synodal groups spoke about abuse; none of the individual interventions have so far — it is not clear how and to what extent it will be brought into discussion.
Some abuse survivors expect concrete outcomes regarding abuse policies during the Synod on Synodality. Others say that it’s enough that the universal church learns from churches where good practices have already been established and made a difference.
Teresa Pitt Green of Spirit Fire, a Christian restorative justice initiative founded by two survivors of clergy abuse in the United States, told OSV News in an email exchange that “if the synod is trying to make the church more welcoming to more people, it would be smart to restore a sense of safe harbor for the vulnerable and weak.”
“To do that, acknowledging the wounds created by abuse which touch every Catholic — and every former Catholic — is an important start, with the kind of dialogue which seems to be what the synod is about. So, I can see why people wish the synod would have a dialogue about abuse,” Pitt Green said.
“It’s one of the major issues that the church has on her plate today,” Robert Fidura, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse from Poland, told OSV News. “If they don’t address abuse seriously at the synod, it’s like they turn a blind eye at what’s really going on, and all the good things the church did and will do will again be seen in the shadow of not addressing abuse properly,” he said, speaking the perspective of a Catholic who is still an active member of the church.
For Peter Isely, even more is at stake as he demands concrete action from the synod along with other survivors from groups like SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse).
Isely is a survivor of childhood sexual assault by a Wisconsin priest. He is also one of the founding members of SNAP, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a psychotherapist in private practice.
“There is no zero tolerance requirement for abuse of children by clergy in the Catholic Church. There isn’t. Pope Francis has talked about zero tolerance when it’s convenient,” Isely told OSV News from Rome, where survivors gathered to demand a zero tolerance policy.
“What do we want? Zero tolerance! When do we want it? Before the Synod,” the group chanted at the famous Via della Conciliazione leading to St. Peter’s Square, where they ended an 81-mile pre-synod pilgrimage on Sept. 27 through an Italian part of a medieval trail called Via Francigena that connects Canterbury, England, to Rome. The group marched for six days carrying a large wooden cross.
Isely joined them in Rome with Timothy Law, a U.S. attorney and co-founder of ECA.
The pilgrimage “shows the determination of survivors to come to deliver their message to Pope Francis … that there must be a universal law of the church of zero tolerance,” Law told Reuters. “Anything less than that is not adequate.”
ECA’s demand is the immediate removal from ministry of priests suspected of abuse, and making it clear in canon law that abusive priests are not breaking the sixth commandment, which is “You shall not commit adultery,” but committing a grave crime.
“It’s like, what have you done? According to church law, you’ve violated the Sixth Commandment … So like these 75 year-olds, when I was a kid, I was committing adultery … ” Isely said of his own abuse, which he first reported in the 1990s.
“Change it. Change it. Get up at the synod and do that,” he told OSV News.
That’s why he and other ECA members demand mandatory reporting of abuse cases to civilian, rather than religious, authorities and firing of bishops guilty of cover-ups.
“If you have been shown and proven to cover it up and put others at harm, you can’t be a priest either,” Isely said.
Abuse issues appear numerous times in the instrumentum laboris, a working document with which every participant of the Synod on Synodality walked into the assembly room on Oct. 4.
“To the penitence it owes to victims and survivors for the suffering it has caused, the Church must add a growing and intensified commitment to conversion and reform in order to prevent similar situations from happening again in the future,” the document stated.
“These are open wounds, the consequences of which have yet to be fully addressed,” the instrumentum laboris said.
“Abuse in the area of responsibility of the church has systemic causes,” Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, director of Rome’s Institute of Anthropology — Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told OSV News in reply to an email. “This means that church structures and processes, as well as certain attitudes and ways of thinking within the church, contribute to the fact that abuse is possible,” he said.
“If something is to change here, it is necessary to deal with the church’s self-image. It is precisely this self-image that is at stake in the synod before us,” he said.
Father Zollner is a top Vatican expert on abuse and a former member of the Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors, which he left earlier this year citing “structural and practical issues” with the commission.
He told OSV News that “in order to ensure that this discussion of the church’s own self-understanding does not become a mere ‘circling around oneself’ — a mere self-occupation, and that the mission of the church is forgotten in the process — it is in the spirit of the Holy Father to ask this question again and again: What does the church’s self-understanding mean in concrete terms for the lives of the people to whom the church is sent? One of these concretions is the topic of abuse.”
The instrumentum laboris states that “the face of the Church today bears the signs of serious crises of mistrust and lack of credibility.”
Asked about the zero tolerance policy demanded for by survivors, Father Zollner said that “in principle, a zero tolerance policy with regard to abuse is exactly what is needed. In concrete, however, it is very difficult to implement this policy for various reasons.”
“These reasons are not the exclusive responsibility of the church,” he said. “They also lie in sometimes very heterogeneous state legislation, which the church cannot simply ignore. In this context, one only needs to look at the very different data protection laws around the world, for example, and the related protection of personal rights (including those of perpetrators, by the way). Not everywhere is it possible to simply publish the names of perpetrators and warn against them — for example, this is not possible under EU privacy laws,” he underlined.
For Fidura — who was abused in Poland at the time the country was still under communist rule and who said he “didn’t have anyone he could talk to” because his parents “would never believe a priest has done anything like that and no one would dare to report a priest to state communist police” — there is another thing important to him and other survivors: “that we are treated as a side in canonical trials, not witnesses,” he said.
“It is close to impossible for the victim to learn what is happening in his or her cases, because we’re only witnesses, not sides, and this is unfair and painful how we’re treated and how it’s apparently impossible to change it for so many years,” he told OSV News.
In a “Question for discernment” section of the instrumentum laboris, the document’s editors ask: “How can we continue to take meaningful and concrete steps to offer justice to victims and survivors of sexual abuse and spiritual, economic, power and conscience abuse by persons who were carrying out a ministry or ecclesial responsibility?”
For Pitt Green, the answer is very synodal: Listen to others who have more experience. For her, the synod would make the best use of its resources if it listened to those that have gone through their “Spotlight” moment many years ago, using U.S.-based abuse victims’ ministries as an example.
“I’d like Catholics and others to understand there is much hope already. There are dedicated and holy people who have for decades been quietly at work helping the church heal from abuse,” she told OSV News. “This has been done apart from the synod. The synod could learn from these ministries, but we do not need the synod to minister as we have all been doing.”
“As a Church committed to listening, a synodal Church desires to be humble, and knows that it must ask forgiveness and has much to learn,” the instrumentum laboris said.
“If the synodal assembly had interest in real-world practice of healing from profound sin within the church, there are very inspiring and effective ministries around the world already,” Pitt Green emphasized.
She also said that “if leaders do not find in their hearts a compelling need to speak of healing from abuse, it’s better they do not do so. Either this Good News for survivors and families and the whole church is burning on their tongues, or they should spare the world yet another carefully crafted press release. We’ve all had enough of those,” she said.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors appealed on Sept. 27 for the safeguarding of children “to be seriously and frequently deliberated” throughout the synod’s discussions. “Together with all those who are worn down by abuse and its consequences, we say: ‘Enough!’ the appeal said.
On Oct. 4, the German agency KNA reported that Father Zollner told the magazine Publik-Forum, which is close to the “Church from below” (in German, “Kirche von unten”) reform initiative, that the problem is that “the leadership” of the church “is either unwilling or unable to implement its own standards and guarantee their sustainability.”
The Catholic Church still has “no culture of accountability,” the child protection expert said, adding that the issue of abuse is not a high priority in the universal church. “We may have the desire and the idea that all energy is spent on addressing the abuse crisis. But in the Roman Curia, which is a reflection of the universal church, it is not high on the agenda,” the Jesuit said.
“Personally, I hope that this listening and questioning will also take into account and make clear that reaching out to people who are affected by abuse or are in danger of being affected by abuse in the future is not an additional task to the ‘normal’ work of the church. Turning to these people corresponds to following Jesus and thus to the core of church life. It was he who clearly stood on the side of those who experienced suffering and pain,” Father Zollner told OSV News.
When asked by OSV News what will happen if abuse is not properly addressed at the Synod on Synodality, Father Zollner said that “many people who have been affected by abuse and many who have lost trust in the church leadership will be deeply disappointed. Their anger, pain and disappointment at the actions of the church will certainly not diminish.”
For Isely, the fundamental desire of the synod to talk about the future is vague if the criminal problem of predator priests is not solved.
“This isn’t just about … people harmed. This is about them,” he said, referring to those in the church’s hierarchy who may still ignore the problem of sexual abuse. “I mean, it’s astonishing. They don’t seem to care.”
Father Zollner, who met with ECA members on Sept. 23 in Rome, said that “as long as the church only reacts to pressure and not out of its own insight, nothing will really change in this regard. In order for something to change here, a conversion of hearts and a purification or clarification of thoughts is still needed within the church with regard to dealing with the topic of abuse, changes within the church system not excluded.”
Pitt Green added that she has been recovering for 40 years from abuse by multiple priests in her childhood and teen years and, as “there have been many disappointments in this regard,” she understands that the Synod on Synodality may be one more.
Still, she said, “Wonderful things may come of the synod, even if it remains tone deaf to the wounds of abuse throughout the church.”
Nonetheless, she added, “Here’s what I never doubt, and I invite fellow Catholics never to doubt: Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, the Lamb of God who redeemed us to be His Church, will have His Bride back, and anyone at any level who does not see the clarion call in that statement is to be pitied.”
Paulina Guzik is international editor of OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @Guzik_Paulina.