The February 2019 meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church presided by Pope Francis addressed a series of points that different commissions and episcopal conferences drew up for the occasion. The themes of discernment and collaboration appear frequently in the list of propositions. Victims, perpetrators, ecclesiastical and civil authorities, seminarians, clerics, religious, and experts— “lay,” “accredited,” “trained”—are listed as part of a set of overlapping yet incongruous communities of vulnerability and accountability. One of the propositions discloses the unwieldy relationship between multi-sectorial collaboration, representation, and the ontologies of harm and liability: “To consolidate the collaboration with all people of good will and with the operators of mass media in order to recognize and discern real cases from false ones and accusations of slander, avoiding rancor and insinuations, rumors and defamation.” This proposition summons and struggles with the way in which positionality and narrative easily alter the frail relationships of the institutions, individuals, and imagined communities entangled in this process. The implied absence of commonality—and the hope for it—also tarries with various registers of domination that invite pondering various disproportions in these entanglements: disproportions of due process, trauma, redress, cover-up, discovery, and endurance in the expanding timelines and uneven archives of a globalizing crisis.

As Fabio Colagrande of Vatican News puts it, the path to the February meeting signals that this is not “Year Zero.” Between 1987 and 2019, a series of steps have taken place, including the publication of reports, the revision of procedures, the production of guidelines by bishops’ conferences and other bodies in Canada, the United States, Ireland, and Australia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These responses often trail years of reported abuse. The legal outcomes in secular courts across jurisdictions are often uneven but they also promote the view that waves of litigation catalyze, as Timothy D. Lytton proposes, important changes in the legal consciousness of civic and ecclesiastical bodies. Aids in discovery, changes in statutes of limitation, arrests, compensation, and media awareness—among other trends—show that although there is need for “a lot more than lawsuits to fix this problem,” perpetrators and institutions can be held accountable. But the temporalities of these “waves” do not align neatly to the wider experiences of abuse identified globally. The fact remains that vulnerability and recognition operate on time binds that are incommensurable and disproportionate to the ways one can see law interacting with them.

But “a lot more” remains unfathomable when juxtaposed to a genuine concern to separate real from false cases, as the proposition alluded above expects. We engage the fact that another “wave” is always imaginable—already tacitly present—and that institutional self-protection produces different time binds for itself, perpetrators, and survivors. For instance, a few weeks before the meeting on The Protection of Minors in the Church gathered, news broke out that Pope Francis acknowledged many cases and years of documented abuse of women religious in India, Africa, Latin America, and Italy. Lucetta Scaraffia, author of a recent piece dealing with these cases in the Women Church World magazine of L’Osservatore Romano, situates this latent wave by emphasizing aspects of it present in the current one. First, these cases were known, and their disclosures included the participation of nuns, the press of various countries, and other authorities. Second, the sequence of denial, cover-up, and delay in recognizing these abuses perpetuates timelines of impunity that endure and that involve future perpetrators and victims beyond some current legal parameters (civic and ecclesiastical).1

The combined and uneven temporalities of the sex abuse crisis of the past few decades are also at the center of the recent documentary Examination of Conscience (“Examen de Conciencia”) (2019) directed by Albert Solé. One of the main focal point is Miguel Ángel Hurtado, a sex abuse survivor and an activist, who travels from London to various cities in Spain as he prepares to denounce his abuser, Andreu Soler, a monk in the abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat. Miguel forms a network of fellow survivors, their relatives, journalists, and health professionals to engage various absences. For Hurtado and many of his companions, state and church mirror each other in key ways. Just as there are deficient legal structures on the part of the state to prosecute abusers (particularly the statute of limitations that negatively affects various child abuse cases), the Spanish Episcopal Conference and various religious orders lack a clear canonical channel that is accessible to victims. Ultimately, for Hurtado, church and state fall short of imagining how to support victims beyond what the temporalities of legal remedy may dictate.

Survivors rehearse more than one voice to address the absences of state and church. In Barcelona, Solé focuses on Jota, whose search and confrontation with the priest who abused him as a child (identified as A. F.), gives an opportunity to test conflictive memories of past harm. A. F. replies to Jota’s questions with hesitance, recoil, and an eventual admission of guilt that gives Jota what he describes as “the tranquility of having found a confession.” Another survivor, Emiliano Álvarez, who suffered abuse as a boy in Zamora, similarly emphasizes that he is seeking “peace with his God,” and a way to “reestablish my family.” Years after his abuse, Emiliano refocused his efforts and filed an accusation against a priest in 2017, aware that “punishment” or a sentence is a legal result he may not be able to witness. The delay in response to the accusation reset Emiliano’s course of action. Emiliano confronts his abuser and shares his story with him: a family torn apart, addiction, rehabilitation, a sense of time running out as his body struggles with cancer. Standing on a busy sidewalk, Emiliano shuffles questions about the abuser’s past actions and his memory of them with their current presence in each other’s visage. The abuser’s disavowed apology conflates loss of memory with the repetition of “I ask for your forgiveness, if I have offended you” as he reenters the ecclesiastical residence. The camera follows Emiliano’s truth-telling to Astorga, where a procession led by the local clergy is taking place. Law enforcement officials unsuccessfully try to dissuade Emiliano from exhibiting a banner that reads,

We were destroyed
No to sexual abuse: STOP IT
It is everybody’s job
You will forget it tomorrow
I will remember it my entire life
JUSTICE.

Emiliano addresses the clergy members, “Bishop, have mercy on us,” and receives the roving blessing as the camera points at the clergy, the cofrades, and the children walking in the procession.

Solé recapitulates these sequences of confrontation with Hurtado’s declaration of bafflement regarding what appears to him as the exceptionality of Spain in the current “wave” of the sexual abuse crisis. Hurtado and his fellow survivors’ truth-seeking and truth-telling are not neat and streamlined—how could they be? For Hurtado, the ongoing and still-struggling cultures of accountability discernible in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, and Australia, heighten the contradictions of a culture of accountability that he has not yet witnessed for himself and the network of survivors around him in Spain.

The survivors’ stories indict the next “wave” as a challenge to focus on the distinctions of what is new and what remains, in present and past failures of handling sex abuse in an expanding global scale. The “waves” of institutional response remain jarringly entangled with the various temporalities of abuse—in individual, familial, communal, ecclesiastical, and civic dimensions—often as uneven, tentative, and gradual measures. The emergence and spread of these cultures of accountability produce their own timelines of presence and absence. But the temporalities of abuse and the realities of vulnerability outpace the fields of vision and action of the law. The survivors resist and remake their communities, demanding us all to rehearse insight beyond what the law finds visible and ponder the meaning and vastness wherein this is or is not “Year Zero.”

I want to thank Mona Oraby, Winnifred Sullivan, Olivia Whitener, and Krista Dalton for their comments and suggestions.


  1. Lucetta Scaraffia and the all-female editorial board of Women Church World have recently stepped down denouncing “a climate of distrust and progressive de-legitimization.”