A cardinal burst into tears today as the Vatican opened a landmark conference on the sexual abuse of children, “wounds [that] have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims”.
The Roman Catholic Church is finally addressing the endemic, decades-old scandal within its ranks that has ravaged its credibility in the United States Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere and led to billions of dollars paid in settlements.
The four-day event brings together the heads of national Catholic bishops conferences, Vatican officials, experts and heads of male and female religious orders.
Pope Francis opened the conference by saying the Church would “listen to the cry of the little ones seeking justice” and the “evil” of sexual abuse of children by priests had to be transformed into a “purification”.
He said: “Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” adding victims expected “concrete and efficient measures” and not mere condemnations.
But victims’ groups have voiced scepticism, Reuters reports, branding the event a publicity stunt aimed at cleansing the image of the 1.3 billion-member . worldwide organisation.
Some have scoffed at the Vatican’s presentation of the conference as a teaching session because not all bishops are totally familiar with how to deal with abuse.
Peter Isely, an American from Milwaukee who was abused when he was a boy by a priest, said: “How do you get to be a bishop and you need an education on the rape of a child?”
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s top sexual abuse investigator, said the Church had to look at how priests and bishops are appointed.
“The question of future screening of candidates for the priesthood is fundamental,” he said in a speech steeped in legal details about how bishops must collaborate with civil authorities, adopting a “culture of disclosure” and for society to know that “we mean business”.
About 190 people are attending the conference, with journalists listening to speeches via audio and video links but not allowed to hear the debates that follow.
The pope and the almost 200 participants in a Vatican auditorium watched a video of five victims, who wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.
“From the age of 15 I had sexual relations with a priest. This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives,” a woman said.
A Chilean man said that when he reported abuse to religious authorities he was treated as a liar and an enemy of the Church.
Anne Barrett-Doyle of bishop-accountablity.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised by the pope’s opening remarks.
“They said this was going to just a teaching session but he is now talking about concrete measures. That’s good but let’s see how it ends up,” she told Reuters.
The conference comes shortly after Pope Francis publicly acknowledged another scandal within the Church – the sexual abuse of nuns.
Speaking to journalists earlier this month, he said he was committed to stopping the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, some of which had amounted to “sexual slavery.”
“There have been priests and even bishops who have done this. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it,” he said.