VATICAN CITY — Survivors of clergy sex abuse on Wednesday demanded transparency, zero tolerance for abuse and accountability for religious superiors who cover up for rapists, setting a confrontational tone on the eve of Pope Francis’ high-stakes abuse prevention summit.
The victims also demanded to meet with Francis himself, but had to settle instead for a two-hour round-table with members of the organizing committee for the four-day summit, which starts Thursday.
The gathering of church leaders from around the globe is taking place amid intense scrutiny of the Catholic Church’s record after new allegations of abuse and cover-up last year sparked a credibility crisis for the hierarchy.
Phil Saviano, an American who played a crucial role in exposing clergy abuse in the United States decades ago, said he told the summit organizers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files.
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“Do it to launch a new era of transparency,” Saviano said he told the committee. “Do it to break the code of silence. Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children.”
More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops and superiors in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia either deny clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, has made many of the same mistakes. As archbishop in Buenos Aires, he went out of his way to defend a famous street priest who was later convicted of abuse. He also took a handful of measures early on in his papacy that undermined progress the Vatican had made in taking a hard line against rapists.
He finally did an about-face after botching a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year. Realizing he had erred, he has vowed to chart a new course and is bringing the rest of the church leadership along with him.
Some 190 leaders of bishops’ conferences, religious orders and Vatican offices are gathering for four days of lectures and workshops on preventing sex abuse in their churches, tending to victims and investigating the crimes when they occur.
“I think that the time for words is long, long past,” said Archbishop Mark Benedict Coleridge, of Brisbane, Australia, who will deliver the homily at the summit’s final Mass on Sunday.
“We are dealing with a global emergency, and I don’t think the language is too strong,” he said. “A global emergency that requires a global response.”
The Vatican isn’t expecting any miracles, and the pope himself has called for expectations to be “deflated.” But organizers say the meeting marks a turning point in the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem, with Francis’ own acknowledgment of his mistakes in handling the Chile abuse case a key point of departure.
“I have been impressed by the humility of the Holy Father,” said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican sex crimes investigator who helped set Francis straight on Chile. “He’s ready to say, ‘I got that wrong. We’re not going to do it again. We’re going to do it right.'”
“I think that gives us great hope,” Scicluna said.
But Jamaican survivor Denise Buchanan, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, demanded to know why the Vatican wasn’t implementing zero-tolerance policies on sex abuse across the board. The U.S. bishops’ conference is considered a model for requiring any priest who is found guilty of molesting a child to be removed permanently from ministry.
“What is the holdup in implementing zero tolerance?” Buchanan said. “It is like, ‘Oh, we already have the laws, we just need to implement the laws.’ Obviously, the laws are not working because children are being raped right now.”
Francois Devaux, from the French victims’ group La Parole Libérée, — The Liberated Word — said the survivors made similar points to the committee members, and asked what exactly the summit was expected to accomplish.
“The great absence from this meeting was the pope, and that was clearly underlined,” he said.
Francis did, however, meet with a victim on Wednesday, apparently on the sidelines of his general audience. A video of the meeting showed Francis holding and then kissing the hand of Polish survivor, Marek Lisinski, who heads Poland’s Have No Fear foundation.
Lisinski went to the Vatican with a delegation headed by Polish lawmaker Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, who gave Francis a report on hundreds of alleged cases of abuse and cover-up in Poland.
In a statement after Wednesday’s meeting with the survivors ended, the summit organizers thanked the victims for “sincerity, the depth and the strength of their testimonies.”
They said the survivors’ input would help them understand the “gravity and urgency” of the problem during the summit.
Among those meeting with the survivors was Scicluna, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India and German Jesuit the Rev. Hans Zollner, an expert in child protection. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the former Vatican spokesman who is moderating the summit, also participated.
The Vatican had asked Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who last year helped open Francis’ eyes to the seriousness of the abuse scandal in his country, to arrange the Wednesday’s meeting.
“The culture of cover-up needs to end,” Cruz said after the meeting, which was held on the grounds of a gated Vatican residence with survivor protesters waiting outside.