As nearly 200 religious leaders gathered at the Vatican for a multi-day summit to discuss the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church for the past several decades, they heard strong rebukes from just a handful of women.
Only three women were invited to speak during the four-day summit, the most visible step that Pope Francis has taken to signal that church leaders are seriously addressing clergy abuse and plan to take action to hold abusers accountable.
The fact that any women were invited to speak at all is unprecedented. Still, the optics were stark as the few women who spoke delivered their addresses to a vastly male audience: Among the assembly of 190 Catholics leaders currently attending the summit, all but about 10 of them are men.
Sister Veronica Openibo, a nun from Nigeria, sharply criticized the Catholic Church for failing to live up to its own moral values by enabling abuse with its inaction and silence.
“We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards and values and good behavior in society. Hypocrites at times? Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long?” Openibo, who works on sexual education in Nigeria, said during her address on Saturday.
“Too often we want to keep silent until the storm has passed! This storm will not pass by. Our credibility is at stake,” she added.
Valentina Alazraki, a journalist who has covered multiple papacies as the Vatican correspondent for Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa, also addressed the crowd on Saturday. She told the church leaders that bishops need to choose whether to side with abusers or victims — and that covering up crimes is as serious as the crimes themselves, particularly in the eyes of the journalists who are tasked with uncovering the truth.
“If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies,” Alazraki said.
“I think you should be aware that the more you cover up, the more you play the ostrich, fail to inform the mass media and thus, the faithful and public opinion, the greater the scandal will be,” she continued.
Linda Ghisoni, an undersecretary in the Vatican office for laity, family, and life, said during her address on Friday that bishops should kneel in pentinence before their victims — saying this represents the appropriate posture for church leaders to indicate a willingness to take responsibility for past harmful actions.
“Kneeling before the victims and their families, in front of the abusers, their collaborators, those that refuse, those who are unjustly accused, to the negligent, to those who have covered up, to those who tried to speak up and act but were silenced, to the indifferent,” she recommended.
In addition to in-person addresses from the three women, the conference opened with testimonials from several alleged victims from around the world — spanning five continents — who delivered their stories over video.
One unnamed woman recounted being repeatedly raped by a priest beginning when she was 15 years old, leading her to become pregnant at least three times. She said the priest pressured her into having three abortions.
One of the leaders who organized the summit, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, told CNN that the women’s addresses are a reminder that women’s voices should be heard more often.
“She spoke from the heart,” Cupich said in reference to Openibo. “And the voice of a woman in the aula [hall] was very compelling, and is something that is causing bishops to say we need the voices of women more often in events like this gathering.”
The pontiff echoed that sentiment on Friday, following Ghisoni’s address.
“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. “This, I think, is the step we should be taking very decisively.”
At the same time, the pope was clear that including more women’s voices does not mean he’s signaling an openness to ordaining women. “To invite a woman to speak does not mean entering into the way of an ecclesiastical feminism,” Francis said during the same remarks on Friday.
Many critics of the Catholic Church, however, have posited that the longstanding prohibition against women clerics may be responsible for deepening the sex abuse crisis.
The summit will conclude Sunday with a speech from the pope, who earlier in the conference distributed 21 “reflection points” to attendees with proposals for addressing and preventing abuse. The Vatican says it will follow up after the summit’s conclusion with additional measures for bishops to put in place.