31 May 2024, The Tablet

Clerical abuse still hidden by fear, Lithuanian Church warned

by Ruta Tumenaite

“It takes some time to dismantle the denial and refusal to believe that the abuse problem is real, whether by the hierarchy or the general public.”

Clerical abuse still hidden by fear, Lithuanian Church warned

The Cathedral of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus in Vilnius.
Bogdan Tapu / flickr | Creative Commons

Reporters investigating clerical abuse in the Lithuanian Church have said that many victims remain too scared to disclose what they have experienced, for fear they could be identified.

At a public discussion at the Lithuanian National Library on 22 May, marking a year since revelations of abuse in the Archdiocese of Vilnius, researchers and academics addressed the public demand last May for an independent commission to investigate the extent of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons.

The demand came in an open letter to the Lithuanian bishops after a scandal surrounding the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Vilnius, Fr Kestutis Palikša, who was convicted for possession of children pornography and investigated for sexual abuse of a minor.

After the archdiocesan curia claimed it was not aware of his offences, 70 lay Catholics signed the letter demanding an independent investigation of abuse.

“The strategic purpose throughout the whole year was for this problem to be taken seriously,” said Danute Gailiene, a psychology professor at Vilnius University, speaking at last week’s discussion. “It takes some time to dismantle the denial and refusal to believe that the abuse problem is real, whether by the hierarchy or the general public.”

She said the lay initiative in response to the scandal was “a sort of relay race, where everyone concerned may contribute with their expertise”. She cited as an example the work of the independent media channel Redakcija, which produced a two-part investigation And Lead Us Not Into Temptation about clerical sex abuse, which is now available on Youtube.

Birute Davidonyte, one of the Redakcija reporters, said described the difficulties of investigating abuse in the same discussion.

“We have tackled many subjects as journalists – about vulnerable people, people with addictions, mobbing among medical staff, workforce exploitation – sensitive topics, where people are afraid to talk,” she said, “but nowhere had we encountered such a huge fear as among the clerical abuse victims, who had panicked at the very last minutes before the broadcast – even though everything was edited out with their consent – that someone might recognise them.”

The Lithuanian bishops have not committed to opening their archives to an independent commission. Bishop Arunas Poniškaitis, an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Vilnius, focused on “better implementation of the safeguarding guidelines, expanding the prevention efforts, and boosting the training of the church personnel” in his contribution to the discussion.

In January, a “listening ministry” was established at the archdiocese’s Caritas, inviting survivors of abuse or anyone with a knowledge of abuse in the Church to contact and receive the assistance by properly trained laypeople. Until now, there had been nine contacts, but none of them concerning the sexual abuse of minors.

Povilas Aleksandravicius, a professor of philosophy at Mykolas Romeris University, said that an independent commission “would give credibility to the investigation” and questioned the reluctance of bishops to open their archives. “Investigation of historical abuse is a matter of justice on behalf of victims and survivors, that’s why we argue for an independent commission”, he said.

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