The Focolare Movement is publishing the report on its activities on safeguarding and on its data concerning abuse cases in 2023. An interview with Catherine Belzung, professor of Neuroscience and coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Childhood Maltreatment.

On 1st March, the second annual report of the Focolare Movement concerning its activities and data relating to cases of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults as well as abuse of conscience, spiritual abuse and abuse of authority was published. We asked Catherine Belzung to give an evaluation of the document. Catherine is a university professor of Neuroscience in France, she is a senior member of the University Institute of France (2014) and president of the multidisciplinary research centre iBrain. Since 2022, she has been coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Childhood Maltreatment, made up of a partnership of universities and institutions from 16 countries. She is also co-chair of the International Centre for Dialogue with Contemporary Culture of the Focolare Movement.

Q: Since 2023, the Focolare Movement has decided to publish an annual report on child sexual abuse and also on abuse of conscience, spiritual abuse and abuse of authority. From your international perspective, what do you think of this decision? How do you consider this second report?

A: I believe this report represents a real step forward. In fact, the last report was criticised, mainly because the places and dates of sexual abuse were not mentioned. The new report covers cases disclosed in the last 10 years and adds these clarifications: it is stated that sexual abuses were carried out on all continents (about 20 countries), with a peak of cases between 1990 and 1999, as well as during the decade before 90 and after 2000. The offences sometimes are repeated over several decades, suggesting that these are multiple repeat offenders whose abuses have continued. Some offences happened and were dealt with around 2020, indicating that people abused were able to report abuse almost in real time, which is progress. All communicated sexual abuses were carried out by men. The opposite is true for abuses of authority, which in 77% of cases were committed by women, which is in proportion with the higher number of women among those belonging to this Movement. The report also contains a detailed and clear section on the measures implemented during the year, particularly regarding formation. It remains to be understood what the root causes of these abuses are. Beyond preventive measures and sanctions, further work should be done to identify the systemic causes that could explain these figures, in order to put in place a strategy that would prevent them.

Q: In this second report, the people who abuse are identified according to precise criteria set out in the Communication Policy recently published by the Focolare Movement. What do you think of this decision?

A: This is an ethical conflict. On the one hand, it is a matter of believing the experience of the people abused and taking the complaints they make seriously, as well as quickly putting measures in place so as to protect them. On the other hand, it is a question of respecting the presumed innocence of the alleged abusers, of not defaming them when no final criminal conviction has been pronounced. The issue is complex and finding a satisfactory solution will no doubt require a lot of listening and dialogue.

Q: The UNESCO Chair on child abuse that you coordinate came about because you came into contact personally with a case of child abuse of which you knew both one of the people abused and the person who abused. It was a case that happened in the Catholic Church in France. In this case, the social or religious community is defined as a ‘secondary victim’. What does this mean? What are the wounds that people carry, how can they be healed at a social and community level?

A: Yes, in fact, this chair was set up as a result of being in contact with a person who had been abused. A contact that left a deep mark on me: I was profoundly affected by this suffering, and my desire to do something came from this. First and foremost, abuse affects the person who has been abused, who often suffers lasting psychological consequences. Sometimes, the opening up about the facts can bring out a great vulnerability in this person, which requires specific accompaniment.

In turn, this also affects the person’s relatives, such as their spouse, their children, but also their parents who feel responsible for having entrusted their child to an institution that did not protect them.  The devastating effects also have an impact on the entire community, as members are often unaware that within it a repeat offender was concealed, a person with whom they may have had a bond of closeness, of friendship.

We may ask ourselves: why didn’t I notice anything? Another aspect concerns the bond with the institution that may have protected the abuser, sometimes in good faith, producing in people a sense of betrayal and distrust. Finally, the community may also become divided, depending on their divergent analyses, between those who take refuge in denial, and those who want to fight to prevent these things from happening again.

Rectifying all of this requires a wide range of measures: it is essential to take on the responsibility of accompanying the people who have been abused and their families, but it is also necessary to restore trust in the institution that has shown its weaknesses and where there is a sincere willingness to learn from its past mistakes.

It’s the actions that matter in making this happen: the institution must promote transparency by communicating very precise information, put in place clear procedures, create places for listening, establish reparation procedures and, for communities, spaces for dialogue where even opposing opinions can be exchanged.

Q: The Focolare Movement is a worldwide organisation, including people from different cultures and religions who are subject to different legal systems and adopt different lifestyles. How is it possible to implement anti-abuse practices in such a multicultural and diverse environment?

A: The consequences of child sexual abuse exist in all cultures, they are universal. In addition to the ongoing psychological and social impact, those who have been abused may have biological ongoing effects, such as increased stress hormones, altering the expression of certain genes and brain morphology and brain functioning. These dysfunctions continue to be present throughout the survivor’s life and may be passed on to the next generation. So it cannot be said that there are cultural variations in the severity of the consequences on those who have been abused or that there are cultures where these people suffer less: always and everywhere, it’s devastating. It is therefore necessary to put in place measures for prevention, but also for reparation all over the world. One can see that awareness of the seriousness of these situations is increasing: for example, in the Catholic Church, national enquiry commissions have been set up in many countries in Europe, North America, Latin America, but also in Australia, India and South Africa.

Although suffering does not vary, what may vary is that people resist in denouncing the facts and their ability to put in place protective and remedial measures. This may be related to the fact that in some cultures talking about sexuality is taboo. The first step is to make people aware of the consequences of abuse: there are already programmes promoted by various associations that take into account the way sexuality is considered in different cultures. For example, proposing that those who listen to the suffering of people who have been abused and belong to the same culture can understand them better. This can make people want to do something about it.

Prevention can also be targeted directly at children, through education about their rights: again, there are programmes, for example, based on songs. Another thing that varies is the ability of countries and institutions to take measures of protection and reparation.

A respectful and non-stigmatising dialogue with those who commit abuse is the way forward: this will enable everyone to understand the seriousness of the abuse, but also to find culturally specific ways to enable people to speak up, to implement processes of reparation and to educate members of the community.

Q: Both within the Focolare Movement and also in other contexts there are those who express the conviction that the time has come to move forward; that is, that it is not necessary to continue talking only about abuses, but to focus on the ‘mission’ of the Movement and on what beautiful and positive things are being generated in the world by the living out of this charism today. What is your opinion on this?

 A: What do we mean by ‘mission’? Is it not to advance towards universal fraternity, towards a culture that puts the suffering of the weakest first, a culture of dialogue, openness, humility? It seems to me that the fight against all kinds of abuses is precisely a way of implementing this desire, putting those who suffer in the first place. Helping to heal the wounds of those who have been abused is a way of going towards universal fraternity.

This also implies accompanying the people who have abused in order to prevent reoffending. Acknowledging one’s mistakes, one’s vulnerability, in order to create solutions, taking into account the opinions of experts in this field is precisely a way to build a culture of dialogue. Fighting with determination against abuse and accompanying those who have been abused are right at the heart of this ‘mission’. Therefore we don’t need to choose between the fight against abuse and ‘mission’, because this fight is a central element of ‘mission’. In today’s context, this is a priority which is painful but necessary.

 By Stefania Tanesini

Anual report 2023: “Safeguarding of the person in the Focolare Movement” (Download PDF)

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