Vatican sex abuse summit: ëDon't wait for the media to make us act'

SNAP blasts event as ‘cheap window dressing’

ROME -- Conceding that church officials in various parts of the world often adopted tough policies to fight child abuse only in response to negative media coverage, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official today called for a “more proactive” approach.

In part, that's likely a reference to the fact that while the sexual abuse crisis has already exploded in North America and parts of Europe, it has not yet really arrived elsewhere, including much of the developing world -- where two-thirds of all Catholics today live.

Among other points, American Cardinal William Levada stressed that the sexual abuse of minors is not merely a crime under church law, but also under civil law, and that the church is therefore obliged to report “such crimes to the appropriate authorities.”

Levada spoke this evening to a summit conference on sexual abuse hosted by the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome, and co-sponsored by several Vatican departments. The four-day event is titled “Toward Healing and Renewal.”

As of 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Levada heads, has been the Vatican’s lead office in responding to the sexual abuse crisis. This week’s symposium was organized in response to a May 2011 directive from Levada’s office giving bishops’ conferences around the world one year to either update their sex abuse policies, or to draft such policies if they don’t presently exist.

Though the Vatican has billed the event as a major step towards recovery, a major U.S.-based victims advocacy group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, today blasted it as “cheap window dressing.”

SNAP also challenged Levada’s credentials as a reformer, asserting that he “covered up criminal reports of child rape and sexual assault when he was archbishop of San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon.”

Levada was in Portland from 1986 to 1995, and then San Francisco until his appointment to his Vatican post in 2005. Though he did not engage criticism of his own record in his remarks tonight, in the past he’s acknowledged that his thinking has “evolved,” along with that of the U.S. bishops, in response to what the church has learned over the past decade.

In his address, Levada said that while bishops’ conferences cannot override the authority of individual bishops or religious superiors, such officials are nevertheless obliged to follow the anti-abuse guidelines adopted by bishops’ conferences in their countries.

“No bishop or major superior may consider himself exempt from such collaboration,” Levada said.

That’s been a point of contention in some parts of the world, where a handful of bishops have refused to accept aspects of the anti-abuse policies adopted by their own conference. In the United States, for instance, the Lincoln, Nebraska, diocese has refused since 2004 to participate in an annual audit of diocesan practices.

Levada also mounted a strong defense of Benedict XVI’s record on the sex abuse scandals, insisting that instead of “attacks by the media,” the pontiff deserves “the gratitude of us all, in the church and outside it,” for his leadership both as a senior Vatican official during the John Paul II years and as pope.

Levada’s 3,600-word speech was the first major presentation at the summit, which brings together some 100 bishops and 30 representatives of religious orders from around the Catholic world, along with a cross-section of child protection experts. The stated aim is to identify best practices in preventing, detecting, and prosecuting abuse, and to make those practices a global standard.

Among nations whose bishops have already issued strong anti-abuse policies, Levada cited Canada and the United States, Brazil, Great Britain, Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Yet, Levada noted, bishops in those countries often acted only after damaging revelations by the press.

“In many cases, such response came only in the wake of the revelation of scandalous behavior by priests in the public media,” he said. “What seems useful going forward is a more proactive approach by conferences of bishops throughout the world.”

To help shape such a proactive approach, Levada ticked off five cornerstones contained in a circular letter to bishops’ conferences issued by the doctrinal congregation last May.

Those cornerstones, according to Levada, are:

  • Making victims the first consideration: “It was, after all, at the hands of an anointed representative of the church that [victims] suffered this abuse,” Levada said. “No wonder then that they tell us how important it is for them that the church, now again through her anointed representatives, hears them, acknowledges their suffering, and helps them see the face of Christ’s true compassion and love.” The willingness to listen to victims, Levada said, must be matched by “a commitment to offering them necessary spiritual and psychological assistance.”

  • Protection of Minors: Levada said such efforts include programs to create a “safe environment” for children in the church, as well as efforts to educate both parents and children about sexual abuse in society at large.

  • Formation of Future Priests and Religious: Levada underscored “the need to exercise even greater scrutiny in accepting candidates for the priesthood and religious life, as well as providing … the necessary foundational human formation, including the appropriate formation in human sexuality.” He also called for a more coordinated exchange of information when candidates move from one seminary, diocese, or religious order to another, so that potential abusers don’t fall through the cracks. Given that such transfers are increasingly common across national borders, Levada said, there’s a need for clear guidelines “that will be carefully observed by all.”

  • Support of Priests: Among other points, Levada called on bishops to protect the good name of accused priests, and to make “every effort” to rehabilitate the reputation of a priest who has been falsely accused.

  • Cooperation with civil authority: Given differences in legal and political situations in various nations, Levada said, the details of how the church interacts with police and prosectuors will differ. Yet the principle, he said, is always the same: “The church has an obligation to cooperate with the requirements of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the appropriate authorities.” That cooperation, however, can’t come at the expense of the seal of the sacrament of confession, “which must remain inviolable”, Levada said.

Levada was still in the United States in 2002 when the American bishops adopted their “zero tolerance” standard, meaning that a priest will be permanently removed from ministry for even one act of sexual abuse. While that standard did not meet with uniform support in the Vatican, Levada said that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was an ally.

“I want to express my personal gratitude to Pope Benedict, who as then-prefect was so instrumental in implementing these new norms for the good of the church, and for his support in approving the Essential Norms for the United States,” Levada said.

“The pope has had to suffer attacks by the media over these past years in various parts of the world, when he should receive the gratitude of us all, in the Church and outside it,” he said.

Levada concluded by underscoring the importance of the symposium’s theme.

“It bears repeating that the abusers are a tiny minority of an otherwise faithful, committed clergy,” he said. “Nevertheless, this tiny minority has done great harm to victims, and to the church’s mission of bringing Christ’s love to the world of today.”

He expressed a desire that this week’s gathering will not only help the church mount a more effective response, but that it can also be “a source of expertise and hope for those who seek to eliminate the scourge of sexual abuse of minors from society at large.”

The “Toward Healing and Renewal” symposium continues through Thursday. This afternoon, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, sent a message to participants expressing hope that the event will contribute to building a “vigorous culture of effective safeguarding and victim support.”

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