AFP February 8, 2012 3:20 PM
VATICAN CITY – The Vatican’s top prosecutor on Wednesday called for stricter accountability for bishops who cover up child abuse crimes and said 1,000 cases had been reported to him in the past two years alone.
“Ecclesial accountability has to be further developed. How do you sanction a bishop? That is something that Canon law reserves for the pope personally,” Charles Scicluna said on the sidelines of a Vatican summit on the issue.
“Once you set standards you have to respect them. It would certainly be the responsibility of the pope and the Holy See,” he said. He added that he believed a “culture of silence” on the issue of abuse persisted in the Church.
Archbishop Scicluna said his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s top enforcement body, had received more than 4,000 reports of child abuse since 2001 including 1,000 since 2009.
He said most of the cases dated back decades and that many of the most recent reports had been from Europe, while there had been a gradual decline in the United States following the putting in place of strict rules by the Church.
Asked about requests for damages from the Church, Scicluna said it was up to civil courts, adding: “A priest is liable for the damages. The principle is: ‘If I break something I pay for it’. A priest is not ordained to harm people.”
Scicluna said Church laws against abuse had been bolstered by late pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI, including an increase in the statute of limitations on paedophile crimes to 20 years after the victim turns 18.
Benedict launched the unprecedented four-day Vatican summit on Monday with a call for “profound renewal of the Church at every level” and for “a vigorous culture of effective safeguarding and victim support.”
The meeting brings together 100 representatives of national bishops’ conferences and the leaders of 33 religious orders as well as abuse victim Marie Collins, a leading voice in pushing for justice in Ireland.
Several victims’ groups however have dismissed the conference at the Vatican’s Gregorian University as a public relations exercise and say the Church has not done enough to punish those responsible for cover-ups.
At a special penitential church service at the conference on Tuesday, Church leaders asked God for forgiveness for the crimes of paedophile priests.
“We have sinned. We did not know how to listen to the pain of so many innocent ones,” one of the bishops taking part in the service said.
“We are aware that our acts of reparation can never erase the unjust things we have done or soothe the searing wound of our consciousness,” he said.
Collins recounted her abuse in horrifying detail and told the conference on Tuesday that apologies were not enough, saying: “There must be acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done.”
Collins said she was abused by a priest in Dublin when she was just 13.
“Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before were the next morning holding and offering me the sacred host,” said the 64-year-old.
The Catholic Church has been rocked over the past decade by thousands of abuse scandals in Europe and the United States, which have shown up systematic cover-ups of known abusers by the Catholic hierarchy going back decades.
The scandals have cost the Catholic Church over two billion dollars (1.5 billion euros), two U.S. experts told the symposium on Wednesday.
The cost could be much higher though as at least some dioceses in the Church “made many confidential settlements over the years, the total value of which may never be known,” Michael Bemi and Patricia Neal said.
The real price may be the blow to the Church’s reputation and the fallout among priests who had been left scarred by the scandal because they have been painted with the same broad brush as offenders, they said.
The Vatican summit also aims to encourage countries where many Church abuses remain hidden, such as in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to learn from places like the United States where more stringent practices are enforced.
Father Edenio Valle, a psychologist who advises the National Conference for Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) told the conference on Wednesday that Catholic leaders in his country had “no idea” of what do about child abuse by priests.
“Effective measures and procedures on the part of the Church in the short, medium and long term, as far as I know, are not being planned,” he said.
“Underlying problems are not seriously debated.”
The Vatican has requested that national bishops’ conferences submit strict guidelines by May on how they plan to root out child abuse but campaigners warn that this is not enough as there is no real power to enforce rules.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the conference was “a success for the pope’s line” of zero tolerance for child abuse.
“There needs to be a culture of awareness and prevention and of appropriate preparation of the clergy,” he said.