Vatican City – Pope Francis on Thursday opened a landmark Vatican summit on fighting child sex abuse, calling for “concrete measures” and handing top Catholic bishops a roadmap to tackling paedophilia in the church.
“The holy people of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete,” he said as the summit opened, the first of its kind.
“Hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice,” he said as the three-and-a-half day meeting began.
Francis handed out a 21-point list of “guidelines” which included suggestions such as drawing up mandatory codes of conduct for priests, training people to spot abuse and informing police.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the summit’s organisers, described the proposals as “a roadmap for the future development of policy” which “governs all aspects of getting it right”.
The ongoing scandals have escalated into a crisis which has touched many countries across the globe, with recent cases affecting Chile, Germany and the US.
In the latest case, a group supporting victims of paedophile priests in Poland on Thursday released a report documenting nearly 400 cases of sex abuse by clerics in the staunchly Catholic country.
In Rome, the 82-year-old pontiff hopes to raise awareness about abuse through prayers, speeches, working groups and testimonies from victims.
– ‘Turning evil into opportunity’ –
The summit, he said, was a moment to “turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification” and “heal the grave wounds that the scandal of paedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers”.
Those gathered heard from unnamed abuse survivors, one of whom told 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”.
Another described the horrors of being forced to undergo three abortions after being raped by a priest.
The summit aims to educate 114 senior bishops on how to spot and deal with abuse and paedophilia.
“We humbly and sorrowfully admit that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims and in fact the entire body of Christ,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told the assembly.
“Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people, leaving a deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve,” he said.
The scale of the task has been further complicated by the fact that some churches, in Asia and Africa in particular, deny the problem exists.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the pope’s trusted allies in the United States and one of the summit’s four organisers, said he hoped people “see this as a turning point”.
The US Catholic Church is undergoing one of the worst crises in its history following last week’s defrocking of a former cardinal — American Theodore McCarrick — for sexually abusing a teenager 50 years ago.
– ‘Vulnerable’ –
Scicluna had said ahead of the meeting that reforms in the pipeline would see canon law “tweaked”.
But the suggestion that Church laws only need fine-tuning has angered many, including Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a public database that documents cases of proven or suspected sex crimes by clerics.
“Canon law has to be changed: not tweaked, not modified, but fundamentally changed, so that it stops prioritising the priesthood… over the lives of children, and vulnerable adults who are sexually assaulted by them,” she said.
Colombian Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez told the meeting that those most responsible for the crisis, “are among us. We must recognise that the enemy is within us.”
Scicluna insisted that summoning Church leaders from across the globe to Rome “is, in itself, a very important message”.
Outside the Vatican, victims from the international association ECA (Ending Clerical Abuse) held a vigil to support each other.
“My presence here is a cry for help on behalf of African victims who remain silent,” said Benjamin Kitobo, who now lives in the United States.