VATICAN CITY — Speaking to a global gathering of bishops on the second day of an unprecedented Vatican meeting on sexual abuse, a cardinal from India — a close adviser to Pope Francis — described his own searing experiences meeting victims. He said those abuse victims often felt helpless and bitter. He said they “could not relate normally with others.” He said they were “distracted” and closed off. Sometimes, their psyches seemed “destroyed.”
“It shocked me,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai.
Gracias’s comments served as a personal warning about the stakes this week for the Catholic Church, which for decades has struggled to root out the scourge of abuse, and which is now discussing new steps to more adequately handle the accusations of victims and the punishment of perpetrators.
The second day of the four-day meeting opened with formal presentations from both Gracias and American Cardinal Blase Cupich. The session dealt with suggestions of actions that the church can take to more responsibly handle claims — included those made against bishops.
“The sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people not only breaks divine and ecclesiastical law, it is also public criminal behavior,” Gracias said. He said the problem of abuse was “universal,” not just relegated to some parts of the world.
Gracias is a member of Pope Francis’s cabinet and one of the chief organizers of the summit. But he has come under criticism for his own handling of abuse cases. In an account published earlier this week, the BBC reported that a mother approached Gracias, telling him in 2015 that her son had been raped by a parish priest. But Gracias told the mother he was heading off to Rome, the BBC reported, leaving India without informing authorities of the allegation.
With 190 Catholic leaders gathering at the Vatican this week, victims from around the world have converged on Rome, describing painful experiences at the hands of the church. Pope Francis, opening the meeting on Thursday, said Catholics were expecting “concrete” steps from the church, and he distributed a list of 21 potential steps the church could take — though many would need more than just four days of discussion to be implemented. The pope is sitting in on the entirety of the summit, but he is not expected to speak again until Sunday, at the event’s conclusion.
Cupich spoke following Gracias and laid out a plan for how to deal with bishops accused of abuse or of covering up claims. The church has struggled for decades to deal with such situations; bishops answer directly to the pope, and they have been hesitant to consider ground rules that would help them police one another.
Cupich said dioceses and national bishops’ conferences need to have lay experts on hand who could help investigate cases against bishops. He said there should be clear mechanisms that were “well known to the faithful” for reporting allegations against bishops.
Bishops should not rely on the Holy See to “come up with all the answers,” and national-level bishops’ conferences can instead draw up concrete steps, he said.