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‘A Church that seeks the truth’: The making of the 1st global report on child protection

Almost two years ago, Pope Francis gave the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors a challenging assignment.

Sunrise at the Vatican. Radek Kucharski via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

The pope asked the Vatican’s child protection body to begin producing annual reports on the Church’s global efforts to safeguard minors and vulnerable adults. 

“This might be difficult at the beginning,” he said in April 2022, “but I ask you to begin where necessary, in order to furnish a reliable account on what is presently being done and what needs to change, so that the competent authorities can act.”

“Difficult” was surely an understatement. The Catholic Church has been described as the “world’s oldest continuously functioning international institution.” It has 1.4 billion members, who belong to 24 particular churches and are present in almost every country in the world. And the Church is not known for its scrupulous record-keeping. 

So how would the commission tackle the task of creating the Church’s first worldwide safeguarding report?

In September 2022, Pope Francis appointed new members to the Vatican child protection commission. They included Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a Dutch jurist with expertise on child rights and child safeguarding. 

De Boer-Buquicchio served as deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe from 2002 to 2012, and as the UN’s special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children from 2014 to 2020. In the special rapporteur role, she reported on sexual abuse in institutional settings, including in the Catholic Church.

Not long after her appointment to the commission, De Boer-Buquicchio — who is fluent in Dutch, English, French, Italian, and German — began to elaborate the process for drafting the annual report. 

De Boer-Buquicchio, the chair of the pontifical commission’s annual report committee, discussed the creation of the first annual report in an email interview with The Pillar.

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In an April 2022 address, Pope Francis asked the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to “prepare for me a report on the Church’s initiatives for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults” on an annual basis. He added that this “might be difficult at the beginning.”

Has it proven as difficult to begin this process as he suggested?

The sheer scope and reach of the Church’s presence and ministry make the idea of any kind of comprehensive report daunting. Passing information efficiently from a parish all the way to the Vatican is also not a common occurrence. It’s just not how the Church functions, as if it were a global government or a large international corporation. Thinking this way misunderstands the nature and reality of the Church. 

The practice of subsidiarity in the Church is key to this understanding. It is not just a nice slogan; it is how the Church is present in an essential way to people living their daily lives in communities of faith. At the same time, it must mean accountability and being there where people need help. The Church is most organized at the local level and as we move from the smaller to the larger units, the organizational aspects become more selective.

When you factor in the difficult nature of the subject matter and a global absence of discrete data on sexual abuse, drafting a report on how the Church is living by adequate policies and procedures in preventing and responding to child abuse in all its daily activities across the globe might seem impossible to do. But the urgency of the problem and consequences of failure require no effort be spared in improving child protection measures within the purview of the Church and its ministers. 

That’s why the Holy Father created the commission and why he asked us to provide this kind of annual report — a report not on the commission’s activities, but an assessment of progress region by region, diocese by diocese, and religious community by community. 

The annual report is a tool in this process of pastoral conversion, called for by the Holy Father — that is, the annual report is a tool for promoting a change of mindset, in the Church.

In our work on the annual report, we have been able to explore many of the concerns about the lack of data available and the underlying reasons for this issue. For the commission to offer the best advice to the Holy Father, it is important to have deep and reliable insights into the state of safeguarding in the Church, which largely depends on being able to collect and collate data. This depends on reliable reporting at the level of the (arch)diocese, eparchy, religious community, bishops’ conference, or regional groupings of bishops’ conferences, all of which are considered objects of the commission’s attention in the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, Article 78.2. 

Developing these channels of data exchange is important and yet challenges exist, not only of a technical nature but also in terms of establishing the trust necessary for cooperation. Trust is essential. But even where trust exists, there is a need for verification of good practices and procedures. That is why the new set of guidelines for safeguarding issued by the commission in May of last year inserted the need for a sound audit of the Church’s practices at all levels.

To gain access to data according to existing procedures, the commission has relied mainly on the ad limina process, where Church leaders come to Rome, on average, every five years, to meet the Holy Father as well as Curia officials to talk about the state of their local Church, with all its highs and lows. 

The commission has made great strides on inserting the safeguarding agenda into this important mechanism of oversight and accompaniment. But it is far from comprehensive, for sure. For instance, religious life is completely absent from these in-person ad limina gatherings, despite their critical role in the pastoral life of a local Church. We need to create dialogue within this important sector of the Church as well.

Even though there might be good practices in some of the dioceses, much of the Church simply does not have the necessary existing data collection systems in place, from the outset. In many parts of the Church, and especially in the Global South, routine data collection is absent. Many local Churches are simply not used to collating and reporting data on a regular basis. Therefore, building data capacity is a persistent challenge that the commission is trying to address, with urgency. 

Of course, data are important, but most important is the provision of services which these data represent. What is vital is the actual state of safeguarding in the Church. The Memorare Initiative announced by the commission in 2022 constitutes a capacity-building function of the commission to fill in these gaps where they exist. 

Specifically, Memorare responds to the Holy Father’s request to the commission in April 2022 to help ensure the implementation of Vos estis lux mundi (VELM), Article 2, which requires local churches to have adequate services for the acceptance and processing of accusations of abuse as well as the concomitant support to victims.

Memorare has already taken off in several countries, with local Church leadership signing a memorandum of understanding with the commission to ensure implementation of VELM, Article 2, through technical assistance around good safeguarding and funding provided generously by the Italian and Spanish bishops’ conferences.

Finally, other challenges remain in finding agreement on benchmarks for evaluation, positive measurement tools, and rolling out a scientifically rigorous methodology across countless different local realities around the world. Our guidelines tend to serve this purpose, but that, again, is work in progress. 

Clearly, some countries are quite advanced, largely because of the access to financial resources and expertise. This is something the Holy Father has identified as a challenge and something the Memorare Initiative is designed to correct to some extent.

Maud de Boer-Buquicchio. Council of Europe via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

How much progress has been made toward the publication of the inaugural annual report?

Much progress has been made on the inaugural annual report, with a comprehensive draft with real-time data that will be ready for members’ review by mid-February, ahead of the March 2024 plenary assembly.

The most compelling progress that this first annual report will highlight is the development and roll-out of a methodology that is rooted in a framework that echoes transitional justice, endorsed by the commission during its September 2023 plenary assembly. This is a fundamental step. 

Transitional justice has been a key component in the types of organizational changes in states and regions that have experienced significant human rights abuses over a short or long period of time. 

While not completely analogous, the commission is of the firm opinion that the key pillars of transitional justice constitute a holistic framework to help move the Church from an enabling environment where cases of abuse are mishandled and covered up to a Church that seeks the truth, providing transparency and accountability and hence justice. 

Focusing on truth-telling, prosecutions for wrongdoing, reparations to victims, and a commitment for non-reoccurrence, transitional justice finds its roots in the Church’s core teaching on prevention, justice, and reconciliation.

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How will the first annual report be structured?

The annual report is structured into four sections, preceded by a methodological introduction, explaining the commission’s transitional justice approach to its work. It will also include an appendix that provides information on the activities of the commission itself including staffing, meetings, statements, and financial accounting. But mostly, as a series of recommendations to the Holy Father, the report aims to bring about the improvements in the Church that it sees as both achievable and necessary.

The four main sections aim to examine discrete areas of Church activity where the importance of safeguarding can be identified and evaluated, and that have a significant bearing on the well-being of children and vulnerable persons, according to the commission’s mandate. It recognizes the need to examine each local Church in some depth, moving through the 114 local Church units steadily on a year-by-year basis. This year, we will present a review of approximately 13 local bishops’ conferences that participated in ad limina visits in 2023.

In April 2022, the pope said that he wanted the annual report “in order to furnish a reliable account on what is presently being done and what needs to change, so that the competent authorities can act.” How is the report likely to address “what needs to change?”

This report is written very much with the needs of victims of abuse uppermost in our minds, to honor their experience and accompany the Church to conversion. The change we are promoting comes in large part from their experiences. Therefore, we write this report for the urgent and careful attention of the various Church authorities, on “what needs to change, so that the competent authorities can act,” as the Holy Father said in our new commission’s first audience with him. 

Commission members, some of whom are survivors, have spent most of their lives working in and around the reality of the sexual abuse of children and bring a vast amount of experience to their critical judgments on what’s working and, more important, what’s not and how to correct it.

Adopting such a change management posture means the commission will address the gaps that exist by making specific recommendations at the end of each of the four sections of the annual report, based off the learned experiences of the various Churches around the world. 

In this way, the commission can serve as a sort of clearing house for good practices that are based on the existing reality. That is, whenever the commission identifies a given safeguarding gap, it documents it in the annual report alongside a practical recommendation. 

As such, the commission hopes to position the annual report at the service of the local Churches and as a tool to accompany their local safeguarding ministry. Of course, there are other parts of the Church that are responsible for holding people accountable for failures in this regard, which is something that has become more prominent in recent years. There again, more needs to be done.

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What are your hopes for the first annual report?

One of my hopes for the annual report is for people to see how it is a natural progression of the commission’s work, since its establishment. That is, we are not starting from scratch with this report — rather, it emerges from the great work of the members from previous commissions. They paved the way for this report to be possible and that should be acknowledged.

Indeed, tracking and reporting on the safeguarding activities of the global Catholic Church remains one of the most pressing challenges of the Church’s efforts in the protection of minors and vulnerable adults. The promotion of institutional accountability and transparency depends greatly on a rigorous and robust reporting schedule. 

It is my hope that the first annual report will mark a decisive moment in promoting and encouraging a culture of data collection, as a fundamental part of the commission’s theory of change model — in the Church’s response to the scourge of abuse.

But, most importantly, I hope it represents a demonstrated step towards transparency and accountability on behalf of victims and survivors around the world. Too often, the walls have been built too high, around the Church’s efforts and shortcomings in addressing its own failures. 

As our members have learned from listening to victims and survivors across their careers: victims want and deserve to know what is and isn’t being done, to respond to the pain that they have experienced, and are still experiencing. 

I hope this first annual report — although far from perfect — might demonstrate the commission’s humble effort at promoting their right to information, along their respective healing journeys. It is for them that we write this first annual report. For me, the Church and the human rights movement can and should share the commitment to protect the inherent dignity of the human person. 

Indeed, the Gospel admonishes us against harming “these little ones” in Matthew 18:6. As I have long said, children are not mini-human beings with mini-human rights. And honest, transparent, just, and accountable policies and practices should keep everyone safe.

Do you know when the first report is likely to be published?

The comprehensive draft of the pilot annual report will be reviewed and discussed in our upcoming plenary assembly in March of this year. 

Once agreed to in plenary, it is our plan to present it to the Holy Father. I hope a version will be made public by the summer of 2024.

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