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Pope strives to fight cleric sex abuse with Vatican summit

February 20, 2019
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BishopAccountability.org group director Phil Saviano, left, and co-director Anne Barrett Doyle, attend a press conference at the foreign press association in Rome, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — If Pope Francis needed a concrete example to justify summoning church leaders from around the globe to Rome for a tutorial on clergy sex abuse, Sister Bernardine Pemii has it.

The nun, who recently completed a course on child protection at Rome’s Jesuit university, has been advising her bishop in Ghana on an abuse case, instructing him to invite the victim to his office to hear her story before opening an investigation. But what if Pemii hadn’t stepped in?

“It would have been covered (up). There would have been complete silence,” Pemii told The Associated Press. “And nothing would have happened. Nobody would have listened to the victim.”

Starting Thursday, Francis is convening a summit at the Vatican to prevent cover-ups of sex abuse by Catholic superiors everywhere. The gathering comes as many Catholic bishops and authorities around the world still try to protect the church’s reputation at all costs, denying that priests rape children and discrediting victims even as new abuse cases keep coming to light.

Francis, history’s 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.

These include the pontiff publicly botching a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile by initially giving it no credence. But Francis realized last year he had erred. “I was part of the problem,” Francis told Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz during a private meeting at the Vatican in June.

The pope has now done an about-face and is bringing the rest of the church leadership along with him at the extraordinary summit. Some 190 presidents 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 abuse when it does occur.

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 conversion last year 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 the challenges are daunting as the message trickles down slowly.

Just this week, the online research group BishopAccountability released statistics from eight of the largest Catholic countries in the world, with the bishops from only one country — the U.S. — committing to a policy to permanently remove any priest who has sexually abused a child.

Bishops in some countries, including Brazil, don’t even have a published abuse policy to speak of. In Italy, the president of the bishops’ conference met with abuse victims for the first time last week — but only after summit organizers demanded it.

“I want to say that something important is going to come out of the week, but based on research we’ve done, I believe this church is nowhere close to enacting the reforms it must make to stop this epidemic,” said BishopAccountability’s Anne Barret Doyle.

Survivor Phil Saviano, who was crucial to the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose that first revealed the extent of the abuse and cover-up by clergy, was more optimistic. He marveled that Scicluna quoted from the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” which was inspired by the Globe’s reporting, at a press conference launching the summit.

“I really didn’t expect to hear them complimenting the news media and thanking you for helping them to come to better understanding of the nature of this problem that is so deeply entrenched within the Catholic Church,” Saviano told reporters.

Saviano joined a dozen abuse survivors at a meeting Wednesday with summit organizers, and hand-delivered a letter calling for the Vatican to release the names of known abusive priests and their files.

“Do it to launch your new era of transparency,” he said.

A different group of survivors will join the bishops themselves, offering testimonies during daily prayers.

The message, said Chilean abuse survivor Cruz, who organized the meeting with the summit committee members, is that bishops must listen to survivors and apply true zero tolerance at home.

“Those who have covered up, there is the door,” Cruz told the AP.

While abuse survivors are being well represented at the summit, women as a whole are not.

Of the 190 participants, 10 are religious sisters representing orders in the summit, and three women will address the meeting. Other than that, the meeting is by men and for men — the hierarchy of the church.

On the sidelines of the summit, women’s groups are demanding a greater voice and speaking out about the sexual abuse of women and religious sisters in the church — a scandal that has recently come to light after Francis acknowledged it was a problem.

“I do not have much hope for this meeting and we were already warned by Pope Francis not to have hope,” said Virginia Saldanha, secretary of the Indian Women Theologians Forum. “I see that it is the people ... that have to raise voices, voices that can bring about change.”

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AP producer Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.

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More AP coverage of clergy sex abuse at https://www.apnews.com/Sexualabusebyclergy