World

Pope warns Catholic leaders the faithful expect concrete action to end sexual abuse

Pope Francis opened a landmark summit on sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church Thursday by offering senior Catholic leaders 21 proposals to punish predators and keep children safe, warning that the faithful are demanding concrete action and not just words.

Vatican senior sex crimes investigator tells summit Catholic orders must be transparent with communities, Rome

People gather in Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo on Thursday evening for the Global Twilight Vigil for Justice, an event organised by a group called Ending Clergy Abuse. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

Pope Francis opened a landmark summit on sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church Thursday by offering senior Catholic leaders 21 proposals to punish predators and keep children safe, warning that the faithful are demanding concrete action and not just words.

The tone for the high-stakes, four-day summit was set at the start, with victims from five continents — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and North America — telling the bishops of the trauma of their abuse and the additional pain the church's indifference caused them.

"Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice," and seize the opportunity to "transform this evil into a chance for understanding and purification," Francis told the 190 leaders of bishops conferences and religious orders.

"The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established," he warned.

Pope Francis prays during the opening of the global child protection summit at the Vatican on Thursday. (Vincenzo Pinto/EPA-EFE)

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse coverup case in Chile last year. Realizing he had erred, he has vowed to chart a new course and is bringing the rest of the church leadership along with him.

The summit is meant as a tutorial for church leaders to learn the importance of preventing sex abuse in their churches, tending to victims and investigating the crimes when they occur.

Ahead of the Pope’s unprecedented global summit on preventing abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, The National speaks to survivors taking their heartbreaking stories straight to the Vatican. 5:21

Colombian Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez warned them that they could face not only canonical sanctions but also imprisonment if they failed to properly deal with allegations.

Abuse and coverup, he said, "is the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest."

The Vatican's senior sex crimes investigator delivered a step-by-step lesson Thursday on investigating abuse cases, citing the example of Pope Benedict XVI, who turned the Vatican around on the issue two decades ago.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna told bishops they should co-operate with civil law enforcement investigations and announce decisions about predators to their communities once cases have been decided.

He said victims had the right to damages from the church and that bishops should consider using lay experts to help guide them during the sex abuse investigations.

Members of the clergy listen on Day 1 of the four-day summit on the church's global sexual abuse crisis. (Reuters)

The people of God "should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth," he said. "We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us."

Finally, Scicluna warned them that it was a "grave sin" to withhold information from the Vatican about candidates for bishops — a reference to the recent scandal of the now-defrocked former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick.

It was apparently an open secret in some church circles that McCarrick slept with young seminarians. He was defrocked last week by Francis after a Vatican trial found credible reports that he abused minors.

Francis offered a path of reform going forward, handing out a 21-point set of proposals for the church to consider including some that would require changes to canon law.

He called for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops, in yet another reference to the McCarrick scandal. He suggested protocols to govern the transfers of seminarians or priests to prevent predators from moving freely to unsuspecting communities.

In the summit's opening keynote speech, Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up as he told the bishops that the wounds they had inflicted on the faithful through their negligence and indifference recalled the wounds of Christ on the cross. He demanded bishops and superiors no longer turn a blind eye to the harm caused by clergy abuse and coverups.

"Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, yes even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people," Tagle said in his speech. The result, he said, had left a "deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve."

Harrowing details from victims

Abuse survivors have turned out in droves in Rome to demand accountability and transparency from church leaders and assert that the time of sex abuse coverups is over.

At the summit Thursday, the church leaders heard five videotaped testimonies from victims about the trauma of their abuse and the cruel, additional pain the hierarchy's indifference caused them. Their names were not released to protect their privacy.

Survivor of sex abuse Francesco Zanardi, right, flanked by Mark Rozzi, Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, meets the media during a news conference Thursday in Rome. (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

One woman from Africa told the summit that the priest who began raping her at 15 forced her to have three abortions over the following 13 years.

"He gave me everything I wanted when I accepted to have sex; otherwise he would beat me," she said.

A survivor from Chile told the churchmen they had inflicted even more pain on victims by discrediting them and protecting the priests who abused them.

"You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith," the man said.

The Vatican isn't expecting any miracles or even a final document to come out of the summit. But organizers say it marks a turning point in the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem, with Francis's own acknowledgment of his mistakes in handling the Chile abuse case a key point of departure.