Getting Tough on Sexual Abuse

The Vatican held a recent symposium, "Towards Healing and Renewal" at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

An international Vatican-sponsored symposium in Rome to address clerical sex abuse concluded Feb. 9 with very positive feedback from participants and an announcement of a new Internet-based Center for Child Protection.

The global “e-learning center” (, revealed at the end of the four-day event, provides online training for professionals involved in responding to the sexual abuse of minors.

It is being coordinated by the Ulm University in Germany, the Archdiocese of Munich and the Pontifical Gregorian University, the venue for the symposium, which was entitled “Towards Healing and Renewal.”

Speaking to the Register Feb. 9, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said it was “a very important instrument” and pointed out that the initiative was coming “directly from the Pope,” as its initial $1.6-million budget that lasts until 2014 is being financed not only by the German Church, but also the Papal Foundation.

Professor Jörg Fegert of Ulm University’s Department for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy told Catholic News Agency that such e-learning tools “are very strong tools if you really want to spread knowledge.” 

He said he hopes it will provide both “top down” advice online while enabling a “bottom up” development in different countries, “where people can adapt the programs to their own cultural environments.”

The launch of the new facility concluded the symposium that brought together more than 140 representatives, which included bishops from around the world, Vatican officials, heads of religious orders, experts on the issue and an abuse victim.

Bishops’ conferences have until May 2012 to submit guidelines for dealing with allegations and instances of abuse to the Vatican for approval. Many, however, already have such guidelines in place, including the United States.

Many participants warmly welcomed the firm words regarding bishops’ accountability from the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, as well as the chance to hear firsthand testimony from an abuse survivor.

For many victims, the cover-ups by bishops have often been as painful as the abuse itself.

Msgr. Scicluna, the promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, denounced a “deadly culture of silence, or omerta” and “the deliberate denial of known facts” as grave offenses against justice (his use of the word “omerta” was purposely strong because of its connotations with the mafia).

“No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability,” the Maltese official concluded, but he said canon law is already sufficient and that it is a case of “applying what we have.”

Michael Bemi, president and CEO of the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, an insurer serving U.S. Catholic dioceses and religious communities, said the accountability of bishops was a “burning issue” with the laity and victims’ groups.

A comment from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, struck him as particularly poignant. When he was asked what he should do to enforce policies against clerical sex abuse, “his [Cardinal Marx’s] response was: You have to treat your brother bishop the same way you treat your priests,” Bemi said.

Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who spoke at the symposium (see sidebar), said Msgr. Scicluna’s firm words should have left the bishops present in no doubt “as to how they should be dealing with this whole crisis, how they should be dealing with survivors, and how they should be dealing with perpetrators.” She added: “That was music to my ears as a survivor: to hear it spelled out like that from someone in his position in the Vatican who can actually implement what he’s saying.”

Asked whether she was confident his words would be followed up with action, Collins said it was very hard to be 100% hopeful, but that when Msgr. Scicluna said canonical penalties can be used to sanction bishops but haven’t been, she felt he was saying, “They are going to be used.”

Father Lombardi said that “the will is surely there” to make bishops accountable and highlighted “a real desire to follow the line the Pope has indicated through this example: listening to victims and approaching problems with truth, clarity and decisiveness.”

He also noted “much awareness, procedural instruments and scientific knowledge” that gave hope that the Church would commit itself to such a major problem and that it can “at least propose solutions and a correct approach, not only for herself, but also for society.”

The Vatican spokesman also pointed out that “no other institution with such a large perspective as the Catholic Church has, until now, carried out such a profound reflection and taken such initiatives” in terms of child protection.

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist specializing in child sexual abuse and associate dean at The Catholic University of America, said the conference was a “watershed moment” because it showed “support and encouragement from the top.”

Among the speakers, he noted, were Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

“You’ve got them talking about the importance of healing for victims,” Msgr. Rossetti said, adding that they gave a “very strong and very clear message that this is a priority for the Church and for bishops.”

Bemi, whose Virtus program has trained 1.7 million children and adults on abuse prevention and detection, said he was pleased to see that bishops and cardinals were “finally getting the proposition that the laity want them to be accountable and supportive. They want the involvement of the bishops,” he said. “This is leadership of the Church.” Whether the bishops will also follow through and enforce greater accountability is the “$64,000 question,” he said, but he “certainly hopes” they will, as the crisis has engendered a “level of scepticism against the Church that it’s never felt before in its history.”

Having handled many compensation claims from abuse victims, Bemi said the situation has stabilized in the United States, but while he has noticed a continued “big decline” in the number of clergy cases, an increasing number of allegations have appeared involving “church youth ministers, liturgists, coaches, athletic trainers and day-care-center workers.”

Conference participants welcomed the shared experiences from bishops and religious from all over the world. Some of those outside Europe and North America were particularly struck by the testimony of victims, with one bishop saying he had never heard such stories before.

“The richness of approaches of those taking part and speaking were very important, as were the workshops, which were very good occasions to share experiences,” said Father Lombardi. “So the meeting has been a step on a long way; not all is solved, this is obvious, but this has been a good contribution to the problem in a broad sense.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.