High-level meeting

An international conference on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy begins today in Rome. At the meeting organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University under the motto " Towards Healing and Renewal"
Bishops from 110 national bishops' conferences and 30 religious superiors will take part. The abuse commissioner of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich came to the meeting from Germany.

It is a scene that says more than many words: around 100 bishops from around the world will hear the account of a woman who was sexually abused as a child by a priest on Monday.
The increased sensitivity in the Catholic Church after the scandals in the United States, Ireland, Germany and other countries could hardly be more obvious. The Irishwoman's account opens an international conference on sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, to be held from 6. to 9. February in Rome. Organized by the Jesuit-run Gregorian University. The conference is supported by the Archdiocese of Munich, other dioceses and some German aid organizations.

"We want victims to be given a voice," said Hans Zollner, a psychology professor at the Gregorian University and co-organizer of the conference, titled "Toward Healing and Renewal". The church should not simply wait and see when it comes to preventing sexual abuse, but must become active itself, Zollner emphasized. An important task is to listen to the victims and to offer them psychotherapy or other support measures. With material compensation, the church also publicly acknowledges its responsibility for offenses committed by its employees, he said.

Reviewing every case
Zollner opposed dismissing all child molesters from the priesthood on principle. Each case should be specifically reviewed. Some perpetrators are incurable, have no sensitivity towards victims, have not matured; it is necessary to see how to control them best. Exclusion from the clergy, of course, means that they can no longer be controlled and that the acts could be repeated, the Jesuit pointed out. The church is also a "community of sinners"; it must not simply chase away the guilty, but offer their possible therapy. For some this has been successful, for others less so.

Cases of pedophilia and child abuse have declined statistically after peaking in the 1970s and 1980s, Zollner told "Vatican Radio". This applies to North America and Western Europe. However, there are no reliable statistics for any country, since child abuse, which in very many cases takes place in the family, is surrounded by a "wall of silence," Zollner said.

The response to the conference is extraordinary: almost all national bishops' conferences send an episcopal representative to the conference, mostly the respective abuse commissioner. In addition, there are superiors of Catholic orders as well as experts, such as psychologists and canon lawyers. A total of about 220 people are attending the conference. Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich will attend from Germany.

Improving prevention
"The congress shows that the Catholic Church is confronting the ie on a churchwide level and is continuing to strengthen its efforts against sexual abuse beyond legal norms," Bishop Ackermann said. He said he hoped for a broad exchange of experiences made in different cultures and local churches. "Here it is important to learn from each other with the very clear goal of further improving the processing and prevention of abuse."The great goal could be something like "world church standards" in dealing with the topic, according to Ackermann.

The German bishops published their own guidelines for punishing and preventing sexual abuse in 2002 and revised them in 2010. However, not all bishops' conferences have yet ied their own guidelines. For the bishops of these countries, the conference offers the opportunity to receive suggestions and assistance for such a set of rules and regulations.

By May of this year, all bishops' conferences must have published their own guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse. The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had set this deadline in a circular letter last May. At that time, those local churches that had published their own guidelines were still the exception. Not only in Africa and Asia is there still work to be done in this field, but the Italian Bishops' Conference has not yet published any guidelines either.

The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Joseph Levada, will speak to the participants about measures to prevent and punish sexual abuse. All cases of abuse in the universal church must be reported to his office. The reports cross the desk of the "chief prosecutor" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Charles Scicluna; he, too, delivers remarks at the conference.

Information for the universal church
The results of the conference are to be incorporated into an Internet portal, which in the future is to provide information for the entire world church on how to deal with cases of abuse. The three-year development of this "center for child protection" of the Gregorian University (elearning-childprotection.com) is carried out in cooperation with the University Hospital Ulm.

Pope Benedict XVI. has described the cases of abuse as an "open wound of the church. Even the best prevention cannot completely eradicate sexual abuse within the Catholic Church or in society at large, Zollner says. "But with the conference we want to make a contribution so that this "open wound" can heal better and faster".

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