Professor Roberto de Mattei (right), Lepanto Foundation president and ‘Acies Ordinata’ members protest in Rome against against church scandals. Image Credit: AFP

VATICAN CITY: In the decades since the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children first exploded, the Roman Catholic church has struggled to resolve a scourge that has eroded its credibility, driven away the faithful and stained its priests, bishops, cardinals and popes.

As victims came to Rome for this week’s landmark meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis and the presidents of the world’s bishops conferences, the church was still looking for a way forward.

“My hope is that people see this as a turning point,” Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said at a Vatican news conference. He said he hoped the meeting, titled “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” would be a “rallying moment” to make sure all the bishops were on the same page.

The four-day meeting, which begins on Thursday, will bring together 190 participants, including 114 presidents of bishops’ conferences or their delegates, representatives from 14 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, female and male leaders of religious orders and the chiefs of several Vatican congregations.

Victims of sexual abuse will speak of their experiences during evening prayers but will not otherwise address the meeting. About a dozen survivors will meet with the meeting’s organisers on Wednesday, abuse survivors said.

At the news conference, the prelates tasked by the pope with organising the meeting spoke of the need to hold bishops accountable for addressing the problem, and stated that homosexuality was not a cause of the abuse of minors by priests.

They also stressed another theme of the conference, the need for greater transparency. In an effort to soften its reputation as secretive and hostile to the press, the Vatican’s website for the closed-door meeting will live-stream some of the discussions and report on the content of others.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s chief sex crimes investigator, thanked the media for its investigative stories that have “bought this topic to where it should belong.” Asked at the news conference about the culture of secrecy that has allowed known molesters to remain in the church for decades without their parishioners’ knowledge, he said that “silence is a no-go,” whether that means “criminal or malicious complicity and a code of a silence or whether it’s denial.”

“Confronting the facts will make us free,” he said.

But many times over the years, the church has fallen short of promises of toughness, openness and accountability on the issue of sexual abuse, and survivors have tempered their expectations.

On Monday, a Vatican spokesman declined to answer when asked if Monsignor Joseph Punderson remained in his post at the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, where he has worked since 1993. The diocese of New Jersey listed him this month among those “credibly accused of the sexual abuse of a minor” and removed him from ministry.

“We are not here, now, discussing a single case,” said the Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti.

Scicluna interjected: “The question is a legitimate question and people need to know that what Rome asks of the local churches it also ready to apply at home.”

Francis himself has been late to the issue. After first encouraging advocates for victims of abuse with tough talk at the beginning of his pontificate, he was slow to act. In a trip to Chile last year, he dismissed the accusations of some abuse survivors as slander, but later apologised and said that an investigation led by Scicluna had opened his eyes to “grave errors” by the church.

On Saturday, Francis defrocked Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., after a church finding that he had sexually abused minors and adult seminarians. It is believed to be the first time a cardinal has ever been expelled from the priesthood for such offences.

Asked on Monday if he believed that the pope had evolved in his approach to the issue, Scicluna said “I would concentrate on where he is now.” He did not specifically cite McCarrick, but he argued that the pope’s most recent actions and language showed he did not “hide away from confronting reality” and that the mere fact that he called the meeting spoke volumes.

“He is ready to say `I got that wrong, we’re not going to do it again or we are going to do it right,’” he said. “I think that gives us great hope.”

He said the pope had asked the meeting’s organisers to stay on in Rome after its conclusion to start the process of following through and auditing the world’s bishops.

In response to a question, Cupich acknowledged that the crisis primarily involves “male on male sex abuse,” but he added that studies had for years demonstrated “that homosexuality in itself is not a cause” of abuse, and that it was a matter of opportunity and poor training.

Francis has blamed the abuse of power by clerics, which he calls clericalism, as the root problem.

— New York Times News Service