Pope Benedict XVI on Monday urged “profound renewal” of the Catholic Church to prevent child abuse, as the Vatican held its first-ever summit on the issue despite protests by victims.
“Healing for victims must be of paramount concern in the Christian community, and it must go hand in hand with a profound renewal of the Church at every level,” the pope was quoted as saying in a Vatican statement.
In a message to participants at the conference, the pope also called for “a vigorous culture of effective safeguarding and victim support” and said every effort should be made to help children's human and spiritual growth.
Bishops from 100 countries and the leaders of 33 religious orders took part in the four-day meeting, as well as the Vatican's top anti-abuse prosecutor Charles Scicluna and just one abuse victim, Ireland's Marie Collins.
The closed-door conference will also launch a child protection centre in Germany to fight sex abuse by the clergy worldwide and include a church service on Tuesday in which Catholic leaders will plead for forgiveness.
But victims' groups said they were not invited and slammed it as PR.
“You don't need a jolly in Rome to learn what the right thing to do is,” said Sue Cox from Survivors Voice, a coalition of victim support groups covering Britain, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States.
“This is just a PR stunt. It's just theatre really. It's no use,” Cox, herself a victim of abuse by a priest who says she still gets panic attacks from the smell of “whisky, incense and stale sweat”, told AFP.
Roberto Mirabile, head of the Italian victims support group La Caramella Buona, said: “You can have all the symposiums you want but why don't you open a constructive debate. The Church is too closed in on itself.”
But Collins said the conference appeared to be “a step in the right direction” and said she had decided to take part despite initial hesitation because she believed the initiative could help prevent future abuse.
Collins, who was raped by a priest in a hospital in Dublin when she was a little girl, criticised the Vatican however for failing to take responsibility for a systematic cover-up of abusers stretching back decades.
The Vatican has requested that all the national bishops' conferences of the world must submit by May a set of comprehensive guidelines on how to combat paedophilia, stressing that abuse is not only a problem for Western churches.
Officials say some countries are having trouble formulating these rules because of “cultural differences” over what exactly constitutes child abuse as well as major differences between local laws in different countries.
Victim groups say the measures lack any real enforcement powers.
“The meeting is a historic watershed because for the first time the Vatican is going to analyse on an international level the responsibility of the Church for child abuse,” papal biographer Marco Politi said.
He said there was a fundamental dilemma behind the conference, however.
“Is the Church ready to push for an investigation in each diocese.... or is the Vatican and Italian tendency of talking about the future without the hidden victims and files of the past 50
years going to win out?”
Bishops attending the meeting have been asked to hold “listening sessions” with abuse victims before travelling to Rome to help them understand and psychologists and child health experts will address the conference.
Francois-Xavier Dumortier, rector of the Vatican's Gregorian University in Rome which is hosting the talks and trains 2,000
students men and women of the clergy every year, said: “This is a crucial problem for the Church.
“The pope has taken a very clear and I think very courageous position not to skate over the surface of the problem but to go deeper.
“We have a major responsibility to look at this open wound in the Church with open eyes and try to do everything so it does not happen again,” he said.
The Church has been rocked in recent years by thousands of paedophilia scandals, some of them dating back decades. They began to go public in Ireland and the United States but have since been reported across much of Europe.
Conference participants warned many abuses have remained hidden in Africa, Asia and Latin America and called for redoubled efforts in those countries. - Sapa-AFP