Church can be leader in child protection

Church can be leader in child protection US-based Msgr Stephen Rossetti
Delegates from over 100 countries are meeting in Rome to ensure a global Church response to abuse. Michael Kelly reports.


If bishops around the world courageously embrace robust child safeguarding policies, the Church can lead the way the Rome conference on abuse has been told.

While the Church has failed dramatically to respond properly to abuse by priests and religious, ”there are clear signs of progress and hope” according to US-based Msgr Stephen Rossetti who has spent many years treating abusers and working to ensure that policies for dealing with abuse are robust.

He told the conference that ”an increasing number of bishops from several countries have intervened decisively and effectively when allegations of child sexual abuse have surfaced”.

He said the Church now stands at a crossroads where countries that have experienced the abuse crisis can help other countries ensure that children are protected.

”Does each country around the world have to go through this same agonising process?” he asked.

”The Church now knows the essential elements of an effective child-safe programme. We ought to implement them today around the world.

”If the Catholic Church were proactively to implement and strongly enforce such a worldwide child-safe programme, it would become what it is called to be: an international leader in promoting the safety and welfare of children.”

He insisted that the needs of a person who makes an allegation must override all other concerns. ”There are false allegations to be sure. It is critical that we do all that we can to restore a priest’s good name once it is determined that the allegations are false.”

However, he said ”decades of experience tell us that the vast majority of allegations, over 95 per cent, are founded. There is little benefit, and much to be lost, for a person to come forward and to allege that he or she was sexually molested by a priest.

”It takes courage to do so and a willingness to suffer blame and ridicule,” he said.

Msgr Rossetti told delegates that he is hopeful about the future. ”In recent years, I have witnessed the tremendous strides that the Church has made, with the strong support from our Holy Father, in combating this evil. I know that this growing consciousness will, and must, spread throughout the world.”

He said the Church’s calling ”is to become the voice of millions of abused children. We must stand in the corner of those who are hurt and suffering.

”One day, victims of child sexual abuse will look upon us, not as their foe, but as their advocates and their friends. That day is not yet fully here and so we are not yet fully the Church we are called to be.

”The Catholic Church is a large, international body with a 2,000 year history. It is slow to change. But when it finally gathers its intellectual strength and moral conviction, and focuses on that which is right, the power of its voice is unstoppable,” he said.

Act before media has to expose crimes – cardinal

A senior Vatican official has warned Church leaders that they must be proactive in addressing allegations of abuse rather than waiting on the media to expose such crimes.

Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told delegates at a Vatican-sponsored conference on abuse that it had to be acknowledged that Church leaders in various parts of the world often only adopted tough policies after serious mishandling of abuse was exposed by the media.

He also warned that the Church had to make the victims of abuse the first consideration in all circumstances.

‘Towards Healing and Renewal’ is being attended by Church leaders from over 100 countries including Cardinal Seán Brady and Bishop Eamonn Walsh representing Ireland.

The aim of the conference is to ensure that bishops’ conferences in other parts of the world, particularly the developing world, learn from the mistakes that were made in countries like Ireland and avoid a repeat of those mistakes.

Cardinal Levada underlined the fact that child sexual abuse is not just a crime in Canon Law but also a crime in civil law. He insisted that Church leaders had an obligation to report ”such crimes to the appropriate authorities”.

Referring to the need for every bishops’ conference in the world to adopt guidelines on handling abuse before the summer, Cardinal Levada said that while the conference did not override the authority of each individual diocesan bishop, ”no bishop or major superior may consider himself exempt from such collaboration”.

This can be interpreted as a reference to Bishop John Magee of Cloyne who, despite signing up to the Church’s robust guidelines of handling abuse allegations, went on to ignore the guidelines for another 12 years.

Dr Levada also praised the current Pope for his role in dealing with abuse both as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and since being elected Pope in 2005. He said that instead of ”attacks by the media”, Benedict deserves ”the gratitude of us all, in the Church and outside it”.

Praising countries like Ireland where robust procedures have been agreed and implemented, the cardinal also said it had to be acknowledged that ”in many cases, such response came only in the wake of the revelation of scandalous behaviour by priests in the public media,” he said.

”What seems useful going forward is a more proactive approach by conferences of bishops throughout the world.’

Accountability is only way to restore trust – Marie Collins

Prominent abuse campaigner Marie Collins has insisted that victims of abuse can only begin to find healing when there is a full acknowledgement of the hierarchy’s failure to tackle abuse and not just an apology for the abuse itself.

Mrs Collins, who was abused as a child by Fr Paul McGennis, said her experience of not being listened to by the Church when she came forward to report her abuse created a loss of faith, not in God, but in the leadership of the Church.

She told hundreds of bishops and religious superiors from all over the world that ”the final death of any respect that might have survived in me towards my religious leaders came after my abuser’s conviction,” she said.

”I learned that the diocese had discovered, just months after my abuse, that this priest was abusing children in the hospital but did nothing about it except move him to a new parish,” she said.

”How do I regain my respect for the leadership of my Church? Apologising for the actions of the abusive priests is not enough.

”There must be acknowledgement and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims and their families by the often deliberate cover-up and mishandling of cases by their superiors before I or other victims can find real peace and healing,” she said. She told delegates about her experience of reporting the abuse to then Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell.

”The archbishop considered my abuse ‘historical’ so felt it would be unfair to tarnish the priest’s ‘good name’ now,” she said.

”I have heard this argument from others in leadership in the Catholic Church and always there is blindness to the current risk to children from these men,” Mrs Collins said.

”The priest who had sexually assaulted me was protected by his superiors from prosecution,” she said.

”He was left for months in his parish ministry which included mentoring children preparing for confirmation — the safety of those children ignored by his superiors.”

She said that only when there was a culture of accountability for the mishandling and cover-up could trust be restored.’