By Elisabetta Povoledo (New York Times)
February 6, 2012
ROME — Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church began a four-day symposium on Monday about the prevention of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy, an unprecedented assembly described by the Vatican as a response to a painful issue that has wracked the church and estranged many faithful.
"We are still learning," Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the Vatican office that deals with allegations of clerical abuse, told the 200 delegates during his keynote speech. "We need to help each other find the best ways to help victims, protect children," he said, and to educate priests "to be aware of this scourge and to eliminate it from the priesthood."
More than 100 bishops and 30 religious superiors, as well as Catholic university rectors and abuse victims were participating in the symposium, titled "Toward Healing and Renewal."
Participants planned to discuss how the church can better listen to victims, cultivate a consistent response to cases of pedophilia and thwart future cases of abuse.
Pope Benedict XVI sent his prayers to the participants of what he called an "important initiative" and, through his No. 2, expressed hope that "many bishops and religious superiors throughout the world may be helped to respond in a truly Christlike manner to the tragedy of child abuse." The pope's concerns about healing for victims, wrote the aide, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, "must go hand in hand with a profound renewal of the church at every level."
As cases of abuse prominently emerged in North America and several European countries over the past decade, the church was often slow and clumsy in its reactions, angering the faithful and inviting accusations of both negligence and cover-up.
The fallout forced the Vatican to strengthen its responses, including the symposium, which one prominent critic, Terence McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability.org, dismissed as publicity that would "change the subject and look like progress."
He also said, "The Vatican is afraid, and it has reason to be," in light of recent charges against the church, including a complaint filed against the Vatican with the International Criminal Court.
Conference organizers have been unusually frank about the challenges they face, because of skepticism from critics as well as recalcitrance within the church.
"We have to realize that there are many different attitudes on the part of church leaders, that there is no one church, that there are forces who resist and those who work for the betterment of the situation," the Rev. Hans Zollner, academic vice chairman of the Gregorian University, told reporters at a news conference last Friday. "Our aim is to support those forces and change attitudes and dealing with abuse."
Representatives from Asian and African countries were invited to address the delegates, a signal that the church is aware that abuse of minors "is not just a Western problem," Father Zollner said.
Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's top official for the abuse issue, stressed that the church had already made clear that bishops had to follow civil law on abuse cases, and that the discussions this week could better assist them in developing guidelines to prevent future cases of abuse.
Child abuse is "a sin," he said at the Friday news conference, but it is "also a crime and the church has a duty to cooperate with civil society and with its just requests for cooperation to prevent the crime."
Victims' groups and church critics remained skeptical that the symposium would yield results.
"Bishops pat themselves on the back by doing training programs and education as though that were the problem. Lack of knowledge is not what causes abuse but lack of courage and decisions on the part of church officials," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as Snap.
"They should be turning over known predators to the police and removing them from ministries, and they should be informing the public of their identity," she added. "If they did that, it would be far easier for us to believe that there was a real intent in protecting children."