On Friday 10 May, 2019, the first session of the General Chapter of the Brothers of St John drew to a close. Over the course of the Chapter, the brothers elected a new Prior General, in addition to the Master of Studies and the counsel to the Prior General.
Given how important this particular time is for the Community, the Chapter had an especially solemn character. It was marked by deep fraternity, which facilitated constructive and authentic dialogue.
Strong unity emerged regarding the desire to carry out reforms, which will allow the Community to express more fully its charism in the Church, at the service of all.
We recall that the painful realisation of the need for rectification and reform took place in stages, supported and approved by the authorities of the Church. In 2013, the work of reform reached a crucial moment, when the Prior General revealed details of sexual abuse committed by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe. Among the multiple actions taken following this revelation, an internal Commission was established in 2015 to listen to all testimonies regarding the misconduct of brothers and to determine subsequent courses of action. This Commission has, since 2016, included two lay members: a psychologist and a lawyer.
As a member of the Commission until this year’s Chapter, the newly-elected Prior General, Brother François-Xavier, was profoundly marked by the accounts of the victims he heard, and has taken to heart the observations and recommendations given in the Commission’s report on its proceedings.
The report, completed upon the request of the outgoing Prior General, Brother Thomas, was presented during the General Chapter. It outlines and quantifies the instances of abuse dealt with by the Commission since its creation. As a result of its precision and analysis, the report gives deep insight into the causes of abuse, the impact had on victims and details of steps needed in order to fully implement the planned reforms.
The new Prior-General stated1: ‘This report, prepared for the General Chapter, demonstrates both the devastating evil which has impacted our Community and the sign of our determination to work tirelessly for purification. As newly-elected Prior General, and therefore representative of the Community, I would like to ask forgiveness from all those hurt by our founder or by a brother.’ He went on to affirm: ‘we must clearly acknowledge our founder’s errors. We must acknowledge that the grave confusion in which he lived, conveyed through certain areas of his teaching, led to and/or permitted the abuses which have punctuated his history and that of the Community. I am determined to carry out the work already begun to rectify and purify what is necessary. We must notably continue the efforts of recent years in initial formation for spiritual accompaniment and to make ongoing formation in this area a priority.
During the General Chapter, I remarked that despite the gravity of our exchanges, there remained a deep joy amongst the brothers which was rooted in Christ and in our unity in St John, the model of our charism. This was made evident during the final exchanges of the Chapter. I witnessed the brothers giving of themselves in prayer and in fraternal life. I am therefore aware of the work ahead of us, confident for the future and filled with thanksgiving for the work of the Holy Spirit in our Community.’
The Commission’s report will be sent to every brother and in its final message the General Chapter requested ‘that the government of the Community provides special support to the brothers’ in their reception of this document, to facilitate a greater collective awareness of the situation and Community reform.’ The second session of the General Chapter, to be held from 22 October – 1 November, 2019, is expected to revisit the content of the report in light of several key questions.
Since the Prior General made information about sexual abuse committed by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe public in 2013, several courses of action have been taken. These have centred around discernment, the brothers’ initial and ongoing formation on issues surrounding affectivity and sexuality, the prevention of pedophilia, spiritual accompaniment, procedures following accusations made against a brother and most notably the creation of a Commission on these matters.
On 18 February, 2019, the Vatican addressed a letter2 to the Prior General, which stated: ‘acknowledging the work undertaken, [the Dicastery] wants to encourage the Brothers and Sisters of St John to continue along this path, humbly and with courage, confidence and determination.’
The Community of the Brothers of St John comprises around 500 brothers (of which 270 are priests) from 34 countries, spread across 50 priories on 5 continents.
1 Available from: https://freres-saint-jean.fr/2019/05/12/message-du-chapitre-general/
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