By the Associated Press and Reuters
VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis warned 190 bishops and religious superiors on Thursday that their flocks were demanding concrete action, not just words, to punish predator priests and keep children safe. He offered them 21 proposals to consider going forward, some of them obvious and easy to adopt, others requiring new laws.
But his main point in summoning the Catholic hierarchy to the Vatican for a four-day tutorial was to impress upon them that clergy sex abuse is not confined to the United States or Ireland, but is a global scourge that requires a concerted, global response.
“Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice,” Pope Francis told the gathering. “The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established.”
The Pope promised that concrete action against child sexual abuse by priests would result from a conference he opened on Thursday, with one cardinal acknowledging that the Church had to fight “the enemy within.”
His opening remarks appeared aimed at countering skepticism among victims who said the meeting looked like a public relations exercise.
“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” the Pope told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders.
Victims were mixed in their response, with some expressing cautious optimism and others saying it was too little, too late.
Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogota said the damage was home-grown, in large part because bishops had closeted themselves in a clerical mentality and some thought they could act with impunity.
“The first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within,” he said.
The Pope and the participants watched a video of five victims, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.
“From the age of 15 I had sexual relations with a priest. This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives,” a woman said.
“Murderers of the faith”
Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean, said on the video that when he reported abuse to religious authorities he was treated as a liar and an enemy of the Church.
“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. What a terrible contradiction,” he said.
Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up as he responded to their testimony.
In a moving meditation that followed the video testimony, Tagle told his brother bishops that the wounds they had inflicted on the faithful through their negligence and indifference to the sufferings of their flock 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 who rape and molest the young.
“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. The result, he said, had left a “deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve.”
A list of 21 “reflection points” written by the Pope was handed out. The first was that each diocese should have a “practical handbook” on steps to be taken when cases emerge.
They included actions such as informing civil authorities of substantial accusations in compliance with local law and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse.
“Putting together a handbook after all this time is laughable,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest as a boy and now heads the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse.
Most of the 21 points are already practiced in countries like the United States.