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Msgr. Uzinić on the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons in the Church

Zagreb (IKA)

On Thursday, April 20, 2023, at the conclusion of the Sixty-Sixth Plenary Session of the Assembly of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, Archbishop Mate Uzinić of Rijeka, President of the CCB Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons in the Church, addressed a press conference on the protection of minors and vulnerable persons in the Church.

Msgr. Uzinić reported that the Commission is working on new guidelines for the protection of minors and vulnerable adults. At the session, the bishops became familiarized with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter Vos estis lux mundi (You are the light of the world), which has been translated into the Croatian language. The new version will soon be published on the CCB website, among other relevant documents from the Holy See and the CCB on this topic.

Msgr. Uzinić added that a new version of the document Vademecum on Certain Points of Procedure in Treating Cases of Sexual Abuse of Minors Committed by Clerics has been published by the Dicastery and translated into Croatian, which facilitates dealing with this issue. The document will also become available on the CCB website, as well as manuals for educators and pastoral personnel, The Wounds of Abuse and Examples of Good Practices for the Prevention of Abuse and the Protection of Minors in the Parish. These manuals are not only useful in the Church but also to all who are concerned about the protection of children and dealing with this problem, said Msgr. Uzinić.

A third manual, For Initial Formation in a Time of Abuse, is also being translated into Croatian and is intended to help those educating candidates for the priesthood and consecrated life, as well as young persons in formation. The Council of the CCB for Catholic Education and the National Office of the CCB for Catholic Schools have called attention to A Manual with Guidelines for the School Life and Formation of Educators in Catholic Schools for the Protection of Minors, with a proposal that something similar should be prepared for the Catholic schools in Croatia, which are increasing in number.

The bishops were encouraged to organize training for priests, other personnel in their dioceses, religious teachers and all those involved in the pastoral ministry and mission of the Church, in cooperation with the Center for the Promotion of the Welfare of Vulnerable Persons at the Croatian Catholic University.

Msgr. Uzinić cited the Archdiocese of Rijeka and the Diocese of Dubrovnik as examples where such training is provided, expressing the hope that it would also become available in other dioceses.

At the session, it was concluded that contacts for reporting abuse should be more accessible in some dioceses.

The bishops were informed about a second meeting to be organized by the Commission and the Center for the Protection of Minors, planned for November 20, 2023, with the goal of educating those who are engaged in this matter. It is intended to support metropolitan offices, diocesan commissioners and members of the Commission of the CCB for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons.

The bishops were also informed about two initiatives. One is the Network for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons of Central and Eastern Europe, created following the conference in Warsaw in 2021, which provides a webinar that makes it possible for diocesan commissioners and other collaborators in the area of the protection of minors to be included. The other initiative is Tutela Minorum, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. This Commission sees itself as a key channel that facilitates the implementation of measures to protect children in the practice of the entire Church and, as such, has a special mandate from the Holy Father to assist, monitor and promote effective child protection throughout the Church. This program is intended to coordinate protective services where they already exist, strengthen facilities where protective services have been partially introduced or implemented, and establish and develop protective services where they are needed, in the spirit of dialogue with the particular Church, and to provide the necessary resources to those parts of the Church that currently do not have adequate levels of services that meet the Church norms.

One of the main topics was the CCB Guidelines for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons, on which the Commission has been working for a long time. It is still a draft, in which the comments of the Legal Commission have been taken into account, and several additional changes have been made to the Apostolic Leter Vos estis lux mundi. It was decided not to vote on it for now, which means that the Guidelines for Handling Cases of the Sexual Abuse of Minors by the Clergy, adopted in 2013 and approved in 2015, continue to remain in force.

The archbishop explained the two reasons why the new guidelines have not been voted upon. First, the network of offices and commissions mentioned in the guidelines for the establishment of metropolitan offices and the appointment of diocesan commissioners is not functioning as planned. This particularly concerns the multiplication of metropolitan offices, which are not functional owing to the shortage of specialized personnel available, and it will be necessary to organize the entire system in a different way, according to Msgr. Uzinić.

It was proposed that the task of reorganization should be entrusted to the Permanent Council of the CCB, which, in collaboration with the Legal Commission, the Commission for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Adults, the Center for the Promotion of the Welfare of Vulnerable Persons at the Catholic University of Croatia, and the Croatian Catholic Network is preparing a new draft for the next session, in the sense of establishing a single office for the protection of minors that would serve the entire Croatian Conference of Bishops. It would have some employed professionals and a network of professional associates, who would help deal with eventual reports, education and everything else that needs to be done for the victims to be truly in the first place, not only in the early phase but after the entire process has been completed.

As another reason for the delay, Msgr. Uzinić cited the shortcomings he has observed, prompted by past events and the document Vos estis lux mundi. “It would be necessary to prepare a more detailed description of how to help victims, if we want victims to be our true priority, and then touch upon certain financial issues, further elaborate the issue of education, and confront eventual cover-ups and penalties, according to the new Church regulations.”

“In the majority of the cases with which I am familiar, the objective was not concealment but there was a problem regarding the naïve handling this issue and ignorance of some things. Therefore, I believe that it is especially important to work on education”, he asserted.

He continued that it is also important to address “questions of responsibility in omissions and deficiencies, even without legal and moral culpability, as well as the criteria for the selection of Commission members.

In connection with the formation of candidates for the priesthood, he said that it is important to increase the presence of women in order “to increase the presence of this dimension, which is sometimes lacking in such formation.”

“There are cases of abuse in the Church, of which all of us are aware. We are still not sufficiently capable of saying how much there is in the Church. There is a desire, at least for now, for the Commission to try to establish accurate data on how many cases have occurred in Croatia, at least during the past thirty years, how many investigations have been initiated and what results were achieved. We want the Commission to obtain data that we do not presently have. There is the impression that there is much more than we can conclude from the conversations we bishops have had among ourselves on this matter”, he said.

“However, we are aware that they exist. It probably happened that some were addressed inadequately. I express regret on behalf of us all,” he added, noting that, nevertheless, a minority of priests are involved.

“Every victim is our priority. We must make the effort to listen to every victim and do whatever we can to help each one of them. The traumas resulting from what I have learned from the conversations I have personally engaged in are truly tragic. Whole lives and even whole families have been destroyed. Nevertheless, we must not neglect the fact that hundreds and hundreds of priests faithfully and conscientiously do their work every day out of love and serve by giving of themselves. It would not be good if, because of individuals, and this truly involves individuals, we fail to recognize the great effort and love with which many priests serve in the missions to which they have given their lives, and to which God has called them. Our objective and intention are to do everything possible to prevent new cases from occurring in the future but, if any do occur, to handle them correctly in order to send the right message, both to the victims and possible abusers, as well as to the general public”, said Archbishop Uzinić.

In response to questions from journalists, he explained that these steps are being taken because the Commission wants to obtain accurate information, which it still does not have, in order to respond properly to these challenges, in accordance with Church documents. “We cannot speak about some things on the basis of hearsay or impressions”, he added.

“We can all do better and more at the general level and the level of the CCB, but also at the level of each diocese,” he said, having previously noted that even the Catholic Church as a whole does not do exactly what it should, so that “some people who are heavily involved in the Catholic Church’s battle to protect children and vulnerable groups are resigning because they are not satisfied with the way things are going.”

With regard to the Church’s communication on these matters, Msgr. Uzinić cautioned that sometimes things are “viewed with too much sensationalism.” “We should not care about sensationalism here but we should care about each individual.”

He also spoke about communication with regard to the case in Sotin. “Archbishop Hranić has realized his mistake and publicly asked for forgiveness. I think we should not dwell on the omissions and errors that someone has committed but should recognize the steps he was able to take, starting from his own actions and what he did”, emphasized Msgr. Uzinić.

Msgr. Hranić presented “the whole course of events and how the entire process took place” to the bishops. He stands by his latest statement, in which he expresses regret. I certainly think that this should be appreciated and it would be somewhat pointless to look for new scapegoats now. What happened to him is certainly a lesson for us all. Mistakes teach us how not to repeat them in the future, said the archbishop, adding that this case was more about errors in public relations than procedures.

As for eventual monetary compensation to victims of abuse by Church officials, he noted that the issue of compensation could “go in the wrong direction.” He pointed out that it should primarily be viewed in the sense of assuming material responsibility for helping the victims.

“After we have made certain decisions and determined that something has happened, we cannot say that we have done our part, especially if we are responsible for what happened. In one sense or the other, we are always somewhat responsible. We cannot leave people alone, but, with the help of the institutions we have but also by involving other professionals, we need to help them overcome their situation, so that they will be able to confront it and continue with their lives”, concluded Msgr. Uzinić.