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Top Vatican officials attend child protection seminar


  • Nuns attend a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23. The seminar was organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
  • U.S. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is pictured during a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
  • U.S. Father Robert W. Oliver, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, attends a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
  • U.S. Father Robert W. Oliver, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, talks with U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, during a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
  • Sheila Hollins, professor emeritus of psychiatry of disability at St. George's University of London and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, attends a seminar on safeguarding children at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome March 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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ROME (CNS) -- There is absolutely no excuse for not implementing concrete measures to protect minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse, said Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston.

"Let there be no doubt about it: Pope Francis is thoroughly committed to rooting out the scourge of sex abuse in the church," he said, and "effectively making our church safe for all people demands our collaboration on all levels."

The cardinal gave the opening prayer and address at a daylong seminar March 23 at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University. The seminar was sponsored by the papal advisory body Cardinal O'Malley heads, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

A representative of every office of the Roman Curia attended, including: Cardinals Pietro Parolin, secretary of state; Kevin Farrell of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life; Joao Braz de Aviz of the Congregation for Institutes for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Marc Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops; and Peter Turkson of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. Also in attendance were rectors of pontifical universities and colleges, and representatives from the Italian state police and the Vatican gendarmes.

After leading a prayer calling for a greater love for God and his creation, especially "your little ones," Cardinal O'Malley said holding a study day was an important part of fighting complacency and knowing "we must continue to learn from our experiences, including our mistakes," and to better share resources and knowledge.

"There is simply no justification in our day for failures to enact concrete safeguarding standards for our children, young men and women and vulnerable adults," he said. The church not only needs to "reform and renew" its own institutions, but its members also must be "witnesses and strong advocates" in society.

He said he told cardinals and the pope during a consistory in Rome two years ago that the church "must address the evil of sexual abuse by priests."

While abuse by any kind of perpetrator is a problem, when the abuser is a priest, "the damage is even more profound." Also, given "today's world of instantaneous communications" Catholics are much more aware, and quickly, of the problem of abuse in the church and are "demanding that we, who are their pastors, take all necessary steps" to safeguard those in their care.

The papal commission, which was founded in 2014, is guided by a "victims-first" approach, he said, because all the best protection programs and policies "will be to no avail if we fail to put the victims and survivors first."

While the cardinal did not mention the recent resignation of Marie Collins, the last active member who is a survivor of clerical abuse, he said the commission would be discussing during its closed-door plenary meeting, "How can victim/survivors continue to have a powerful voice in our work and help to guide us?" Collins, who was a member of the commission since its inception, stepped down citing a chronic lack of cooperation from some in the Roman Curia in following recommendations that had the pope's support.

"It's not enough to say 'We are putting victims first'" or that the church is seeking to listen to survivors, said Francis Sullivan, head of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which was established by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference and Catholic Religious Australia. The council oversees the church's engagement with a state inquiry into clerical sexual abuse.

"Words are not going to do it. Actions do it," he said in his presentation.

The "intense scrutiny" the church in Australia has been through shows that the entire church must confront "the miserable reality that sex abuse happened in our church."

He urged everyone present to not "distract church leaders" by pointing attention to all the other places and people in the world guilty of abusing children.

"Sure it may happen in other places," he said, "but the fact that it happened in the Catholic Church says something about the corruption in our church" and about how its members have "lost the plot" and are no longer being true to their beliefs.

"Somehow we've not only enabled abusers to exist," Sullivan said, the church has allowed them "to continue to abuse."

Keep the spotlight on "Why. Why did it happen in our church?" he said, and "come to terms with that cancer."

Otherwise, the risk remains that victims and survivors will never be fully listened to or that their experience will never truly impact people's lives.

Don't smother what a victim has to say, by countering with a laundry list of "Yes, but" and all the ways the church is doing the right thing, he said. "The 'but' part drowns out the voice of the victim." The church needs to "be humble" recognize all the "baggage" in its past and "humbly face failures."

Until leaders couple a genuine recognition of past wrongs with concrete action in best practices, Catholics and others will not believe any of the talk and the church won't regain its credibility, he said.

Sullivan said when the pope and others talk about the need for a reform of the heart, people need to realize "that the decisions our leaders made in order to facilitate and cover up actually broke the heart of what it meant to be Catholic."

"We need to go back and confront that," he said.

Cardinal Braz de Aviz told Catholic News Service that the meeting showed "the conscience of the church" and a "very important" shift in perspective, or in other words, "the recovery of humanity."

While abuse is a problem throughout society, he said it took a lot of courage from the church to recognize its role in the problem.

There is no longer any place for the "old way of doing things" with abusive clergy or religious -- such as moving them from one assignment to another, the cardinal said. "We have to totally change the way of doing" things.

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