An interview with Jesús Morán Cepedano, co-president of the Focolare Movement since 2014 and, as stated in the Movement’s statutes, responsible for moral and disciplinary issues. (The interview was conducted by Lorenzo Prezzi and Marcello Neri).
As co-president of the Focolare Movement, on 18 September 2020 you met victims of abuse in Nantes, France. Can you tell us what happened and how you reacted?
We were summoned by three of Jean-Michel Merlin’s victims to go and take stock of the situation and, in as far as it is possible, to conclude matters in the right way for them. Jean-Michel Merlin was a French focolarino who committed abuse and we have we have been in contact with these victims over recent years. It was a very strong experience for all of us in the Movement who were there and for me in particular because I met with living pain, the pure pain of those who have been abused.
It was not the first time I had come into contact with victims of abuse but I had never before had such an intense awareness of their suffering. Furthermore, it was very painful for us to see the extent of our shortcomings – especially in the Merlin case. I say this in regard to the way we accompany the victims, accept responsibility for the situation, our disorientation as a Movement and, in this case, the delay in taking steps appropriate to the situation and the facts.
In my opinion, it represented a watershed moment. Starting from this personal relationship with the victims, the vision of this drama changed a lot. After the Nantes meeting, the Movement intensified the work already begun in taking appropriate measures in situations of abuse.
The president, Maria Voce, spoke and expressed her desire for total clarity. On what occasion?
According to the Movement’s statutes, the co-president is the person who must deal with moral and disciplinary matters and ensure that the life in the Movement concurs with the doctrine of the Church. This is his specific task, but this is always done in unity and full agreement with the president. In this sense, Maria Voce has always supported all my work for many years. There have been two particular occasions when we have spoken together.
The first time was on 26 March 2019, with a letter written to all the members of the Movement in which we publicly acknowledged our shortcomings, the fact that abuse had occurred within the Work of Mary and affirming our binding commitment, especially with the victims, to repair all that needed to be repaired.
A second time, more recently, we spoke together again in a worldwide link up during which we publicly asked for forgiveness from all those who had been abused in the Focolare movement – whether this had been sexual abuse, child abuse or abuses of authority or power.
What was the impact on the members of the Focolare and the Movement when they heard about such cases of abuse?
The first reaction of many people was almost incredulity and bewilderment: the news made a very strong impact because many people considered it unthinkable that such painful actions could have occurred in a Movement characterised by mutual love, where relationships are of fundamental spiritual importance. There are ideas central to the Movement – such as seeing Jesus in the other and the life of unity – that are so contrary to any form of abuse that it could seem unthinkable.
The process of entering into what Catherine of Siena called the “house of self-knowledge” was painful for the members of the Movement: that is, we discovered how inadequate we are in living out unity and our charism. But discovering one’s own weakness and starting again with a trust in God and in others that is no longer naive is a fundamental process. This is what many people in the Movement have experienced – and they have shared this with us in so many different ways.
Are the resignations of the leaders of the Movement in France and the widely publicised case of Jean-Michel Merlin symptoms of some weaknesses in its internal formation processes?
Obviously, yes. I said the same thing in a recent communication addressed to the members of the Movement. These situations of abuse have highlighted some weaknesses in formation programmes and, therefore, there is a need to take care of all stages of this process and pay great attention to the people involved.
In particular, we need to carry out serious and genuine vocational discernment – and here I am referring not only to consecrated members but also to the vocation of anyone who wants to make a strong commitment in the Movement.
Another aspect is that of taking better care of and accompanying the people who have roles of responsibility in the Movement – ensuring that they have the essential and holistic formation required, that they have adequate relational skills, that they are able to listen to and welcome other people and show respect. It is a matter of ensuring that our training programmes are effective.
I think that for years we have placed total trust in the strength of spirituality and charism but this has sometimes led us to neglecting certain human aspects: we are now more aware of these human elements and take greater care of them. This is true both in view of the progress of human sciences and the advances in this field that are being made within the Church.
When the floodgates of testimonies open, they multiply. Do you think that this could happen in the Movement too, i.e. that after the Merlin case, other allegations of abuse could emerge?
Yes, we are already seeing this happen and we are preparing for it. More complaints are reaching us and we need the tools for real discernment. In some cases, it is more a matter of tension and conflict in relationships that cannot be considered as real abuse; in other cases, however, abuse of which we were unaware has taken place and such situations must be treated with due rigour and attention. This is a process of “purification of memory” that we want to live with an attitude of both humility and hope.
What tools have you put in place to respond to these allegations of abuse within the Movement?
We have two commissions to deal with such situations: a Commission for the safeguarding and protection of children and vulnerable adults which has been operating for some years now and is internally regulated – the regulations have recently been revised – and a Commission independent of the governing structures of the Movement for the protection of individuals, i.e. for adults who may suffer abuse with regard to authority, power and even of a sexual nature.
This second instrument has been established more recently than the first Commission and, right now, after four years of activity, is drafting a new statute based on experience gained thus far. The final version will be made public as soon as it is ready.
These two instruments act at central level; then, as far as the safeguarding of young peope and vulnerable adults is concerned, there are also regional commissions. We may also be going in this direction with regard to the protection of individuals in liaison with the central bodies. We are carrying out all this work in dialogue with the Dicastery for the Laity because we feel the need to constantly improve procedures so that it is clear how to approach these bodies, how to verify the various cases and ascertain if abuse has occured.
We should also set up supervisory bodies at all levels. The committee for the safeguarding of young people and vulnerable adults has already done so. In these supervisory bodies there will be people from outside the Movement to ensure greater transparency.
Can you say something about the mandate given to GCPS, the British company which has been asked to investigate all possible cases of abuse within the Movement?
This is a commitment that we made to the victims with whom we met in Nantes. They asked for a completely independent commission to carry out an investigation – independent not only of the Movement’s own governance and composed of members who do not hold positions of leadership but also independent of the Movement as such, composed of people who are not involved with it in any way.
After searching for a couple of months, we identified this British company which, for the moment, will only deal with the Merlin case because it is serious and we can learn from it. We will see how things develop: we have just given the mandate to the British company and we are beginning to work with them. The investigation process will probably take a year to complete: the facts need to be established and we still need to know the real number of cases; decisions will need to be taken and responsibilities will need to be assumed.
What is the victims’ role in this internal analysis?
The victims’ role is fundamental: for example, they will participate in the survey that we have entrusted to GCPS Consulting – especially in drawing up the operational agenda. The contact with the victims is ongoing and permanent. During this time, I have communicated with them about every step we have taken as a Movement and so they participate in the whole process. In as far as possible, we are always in contact in every case and every situation.
Will the next General Assembly of the Movement, opening at the end of January, include some kind of report on these facts?
Yes, the topic of abuse is included in the president’s report of her six-year term of office that will open the Assembly and there will also be an ad hoc intervention by the co-president. In this sense, the topic will not only be presented but also discussed in depth during the Assembly.
You have emphasised the great trust in Chiara’s founding charism, a trust that, for example, was shared with a very wide audience in the recent television programme about Chiara Lubich. Is this patrimony being put to the test by these events and in what way can it be revived?
The television programme about Chiara, although fiction with the limitations and merits of the genre, was a great gift for all of us, especially for the younger members of the Movement who did not know about Chiara Lubich’s early life. I think that the production succeeded in clearly highlighting the true fruit of the charism of unity, that is, a people born of the Gospel who live for universal sister and brotherhood, an emphasis on communion and fellowship, an openness to humanity and attention to the sufferings of the world. I believe these are very topical themes.
We saw a fictional account of Chiara’s story but this can be a great stimulus to move forward in the incarnation of the charism both in the Church and in society.