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‘This storm will not pass by’: Women take center stage in closing hours of Pope Francis’ clergy sex-abuse summit

A Nigerian-born nun lambasted the church's mostly male leadership for their "mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency" in handling clergy sex abuse.

Sister Veronica Openibo, a prominent Nigerian nun, blasted the culture of silence in the Catholic Church that has long sought to hide clergy sexual abuse, telling a Vatican summit Saturday that transparency and an admission of mistakes is needed to restore trust.
Sister Veronica Openibo, a prominent Nigerian nun, blasted the culture of silence in the Catholic Church that has long sought to hide clergy sexual abuse, telling a Vatican summit Saturday that transparency and an admission of mistakes is needed to restore trust.Read moreAlessandra Tarantino / AP

VATICAN CITY — A string of women chosen to address Pope Francis’ clergy sex-abuse summit in its final days forcefully condemned the Catholic hierarchy’s culture of silence and accused their mostly male audience of hypocrisy and unnecessary secrecy in handling the issue over decades.

Sister Veronica Openibo, an African nun, blasted the church for failing to live up to the standards it espouses in a fiery speech that opened the conference’s penultimate day Saturday.

“How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities?” she asked. “We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a church.”

Speaking at a news conference later, the Nigerian-born superior of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus religious order credited another woman — an Italian abuse victim — for inspiring her assertive tone.

That woman spoke anonymously during a closed-door session Friday evening and told the roughly 200 gathered bishops and religious superiors of five years of abuse she endured starting when she was 11.

“Since then I, who loved coloring books and doing somersaults on the grass, have not existed,” she said, according to a Vatican-issued readout of her remarks. “Instead, engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body, and soul, are all the times he immobilized me, the child, with superhuman strength.”

She, too, took bishops and civil authorities to task, condemning statutes of limitations within church and Italian law that spared her abuser from prosecution because she took decades to come forward.

“Victims are not guilty of their silence,” she said. “The trauma and damage they suffer are all the greater, the longer the period of silence. … Wounds can never be prescribed.”

That either of the women — let alone both — would have been granted prime-time platforms at a highly watched Vatican summit would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Many of the abuse victims and their supporters who have descended upon St. Peter’s Square throughout the four-day conference have cited the church’s historic resistance to granting leadership roles to women as part of the reason it remains stuck in a crisis that has plagued it for decades.

“That’s just not right,” said Johanna Berrigan, of Philadelphia, who along with roughly a hundred others participated in a victims’ march Saturday from Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. “The people that facilitated this problem are going to sit in a room and try to figure it out with no lay people, women theologians, parents of survivors, or experts on abuse?”

Still, inclusivity appears to have been on the minds of summit organizers, who have granted prominent speaking roles to bishops from developing nations, women, and members of the laity — including Valentina Alazraki, a longtime Vatican correspondent for Mexico’s Televisa network who warned bishops Saturday that journalists “will be your worst enemies” unless the hierarchy starts siding with victims and not their abusers.

Linda Ghisoni, an undersecretary in the Vatican office for laity — one of the few women to reach a position of prominence in the epicenter of Catholic bureaucracy — urged bishops to kneel in penitence before victims and their families on Friday, and earned high praise from Francis as she closed out that the day’s proceedings.

“Inviting a woman to speak on the wounds of the church is inviting the church to speak about herself, about the wounds she bears,” Pope Francis said Friday in unscheduled remarks after Ghisoni’s remarks. “This, I think, is the step we should be taking very decisively.”

Still, in the same breath, the pontiff managed also to raise the hackles of advocates for the ordination of women priests with statements that they seized upon as a slight.

“To invite a woman to speak does not mean entering into the way of an ecclesiastical feminism,” he said, “because in the end every feminism ends up being machismo with a skirt.”

Nevertheless, as she took the dais Saturday, Openibo said she was determined to make the most of their platform.

“When I came here and my name was right at the end [of the program], I heard from brothers: ‘She can’t be at the end. That’s a move,’ ” she said at a news conference. “In the past, that’s when all the bishops were finished. All the media were finished.”

So, with her time, she urged frank discussions of topics that have long been considered taboo, including creating a role for Catholic laity in the selection of bishops, reconsidering whether all-male seminaries are healthy environments, and asking aloud why the church has refused to dismiss some abuser priests just because they are elderly.

She recalled watching the Oscar-winning film Spotlight through tears, moved by the sheer scope of the damage captured in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by the Boston Globe that inspired the film.

Openibo paused, however, midway through her remarks, turned to the pope, and thanked “Brother Francis” for his honesty in admitting last year that he had erred in handling an abuse cover-up in Chile, where he defended a bishop accused of ignoring evidence against a notorious predator and accused the man’s victims of “slander.”

Her message to the other prelates in the room?

“This storm will not pass,” she said. “Our credibility is at stake.”