CNS PHOTO | ROBERT DUNCAN
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, leads a Feb. 7 penitential vigil at St. Ignatius Church in Rome to show contrition for clerical sexual abuse.
VATICAN CITY – The take-away message from a Vatican-backed symposium on clerical sex abuse was clear: Victims, truth and justice come first. And the Church can no longer wait for a crisis to erupt before it begins to address the scandal of abuse.
"We do not need to wait for a bomb to explode. Preventing it from exploding is the best response," said Philippine Archbishop Luis Tagle.
The archbishop of Manila was one of more than 200 bishops, cardinals, priests, religious and laypeople who attended a landmark symposium Feb. 6-9 in Rome.
The conference aimed to inspire and educate bishops' conferences around the world as they seek to comply with a Vatican mandate to establish anti-abuse guidelines by May.
Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that issued the mandate, said more than 4,000 cases of sexual abuse have been reported to the doctrinal office the past decade.
Those cases revealed that an exclusively canonical response to the crisis has been inadequate, Levada said. Instead, a multifaceted and more proactive approach by all bishops and religious orders is needed.
Countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia and Germany are among those with the most comprehensive and binding guidelines or norms, he said.
"But in many cases such response came only in the wake of the revelation of scandalous behaviour by priests in the public media."
Learning the hard way, after generations of children and vulnerable adults are harmed and traumatized, shouldn't be the norm, symposium participants said.
"Does each country around the world have to go through this same agonizing process?" asked Msgr. Stephen Rossetti of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Hard lessons over the decades have taught the Church the essential elements of an effective child-protection program, Rossetti said, but such standards need to be implemented today around the world.
Not all bishops or superiors are fully on board, he said, as some believe that no abuse has happened or will happen under their watch.
"It is kind of like moving a mountain," trying to convince everyone that addressing abuse with swift and effective programs is an urgent obligation.
"It's not just changing a few policies, it's a change in the way people think about these issues, and that takes a cultural shift," he said.
That kind of conversion did happen at the conference, he said, for Church officials who had never heard a victim speak in person about his or her trauma and concerns.
Marie Collins, an abuse survivor from Ireland, said having her abuser's superiors shift the blame onto her and fail to stop the perpetrator caused her more pain and shock than the abuse itself.
CNS PHOTO | TONY GENTILE, REUTERS
Irish abuse victim Marie Collins talks during a press conference in Rome Feb. 7.
Collins told participants she was abused at the age of 13 by a chaplain in a hospital where she was recovering from an illness. The experience was deeply traumatic.
"Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before were the next morning holding and offering me the sacred host," she said. Her initial response was to blame herself.
Decades later, she said, she made an initial report of her experience to a parish priest.
"This priest refused to take the name of my abuser and said he saw no need to report the chaplain," she said. "He told me what had happened was probably my fault."
Collins said she wanted the Church to listen and respect victims and take their accusations seriously.
Hearing a Church leader ask for forgiveness for shielding abusers was, she said, critical to healing, and she wanted to make sure there would be consequences for anyone who did not adhere to Church norms.
It appeared that symposium attendees and organizers were listening.
Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and 10 other bishops led a solemn penitential service Feb. 7, in which they asked forgiveness for failing to protect children and serving instead as an "instrument of evil against them."
The bishops included Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of All Ireland, who two years ago apologized for having failed to report an abuser priest to the police in the 1970s.
The Vatican's top investigator of clerical sex abuse, Msgr. Charles Scicluna, didn't leave any wiggle room when it comes to complying with Church and civil laws.
Everyone, especially the lay faithful, he said, needs to develop the confidence "to denounce the sin when it happens and to call it a crime - because it is a crime – and to do something about it."
The "deadly culture of silence, or 'omerta,' is in itself wrong and unjust," Scicluna said. Bishops have a duty to cooperate fully with civil authority when civil laws are broken.
Experts, too, insisted that listening to victims and putting truth, justice and their safety must be the top concerns of all church leaders.
Rossetti told Catholic News Service that if there had ever been any doubt about the Vatican's position, "those days are over."
The pope and the Vatican are "all on the same page, and so that's a powerful message to every bishop in the world," he said.