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Church leaders to ask forgiveness for protecting abusers

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ROME — A Vatican cardinal will lead a penitential vigil to show contrition for the sexual abuse of children by priests and for the actions of Catholic officials who shielded the perpetrators from justice.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, will preside over the vigil Feb. 7, during a weeklong symposium attended by representatives of 110 bishops’ conferences and 30 religious orders.

The conference, “Toward Healing and Renewal,” will launch a global initiative aimed at improving efforts to stop clerical sexual abuse and better protect children and vulnerable adults. The Feb. 6-9 symposium will be held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and is supported by the Vatican Secretariat of State and several other Vatican offices.

The Vatican's flag flies above a snow- covered St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 4. A rare snowfall blanketed the Eternal City with more than 3 inches of snow. Vatican officials will participate this week in a ceremony asking forgiveness for shielding sexual abusers from justice during a meeting, "Toward Healing and Renewal," at the Pontifical Gregorian University. (CNS/Paul Haring)

During the penitential vigil, to be held in Rome’s St. Ignatius Church, a text will be read that is “very profound, clear and explicit,” said Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist and one of the symposium organizers.

Seven individuals from the church who represent groups who have been “guilty or negligent will ask for forgiveness” both from God and victims, while an abuse victim “will be next to Jesus’ cross and will ask for the strength to pardon” the perpetrators who were protected and leaders who were negligent in acting on reports of abuse, Father Zollner said during a Feb. 3 news conference.

Which groups were to be chosen to represent guilty or negligent parties were not yet known, Father Zollner said, as organizers were in the process of asking representatives to volunteer.

Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical sex abuse, said one of the reasons that abuse victims are still so hurt and angered is that, “despite apologies for the actions of the abusers, there have been few apologies for the protection given them by their superiors.”

“There seems to be a lack of penalty for any of these men in leadership who deliberately or negligently covered up for abusers, allowing them to continue to abuse unhindered,” she said.

She said, “We have an example of this in Ireland with our own cardinal primate,” Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, who was scheduled to attend the Rome symposium.

She said “the most healing thing that could possibly happen” to her and many survivors is to hear church leaders ask forgiveness for the protection of abusers.

“We have had apologies, but forgiveness is a part of Christianity, a part of the Catholic Church” that is so important, she said.

Father Zollner said there are conflicting attitudes in the church about the abuse crisis.

“There are forces who resist, and there are people who work together for the better, and this is our goal here: that we unite the forces who want to work for betterment,” for the prevention of abuse and protection of the vulnerable, he said.

U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with priests accused of abuse, will give the symposium’s opening address, and Pope Benedict XVI will deliver a message to be read to symposium participants. Other speakers include a victim of abuse; mental health professionals who have worked in the areas of prevention and treatment; and bishops from different parts of the world, who will talk about responses to the abuse crisis in their countries.

The conference is designed in part to help bishops’ conferences and superiors of religious orders respond to a 2011 circular letter from the doctrinal congregation requiring all dioceses in the world to develop guidelines on handling allegations of abuse.

After the conference, the Gregorian University and other institutions will launch an e-learning center — the Center for the Protection of Children — which will offer online resources in five languages. The center will be based in Munich and is designed to help church leaders respond pastorally to the issue of sexual abuse in the church and society as a whole. The center has been funded for an initial three-year period and received significant funding directly from Pope Benedict through the Papal Foundation.

According to the conference program, participants will have an opportunity to attend workshops in their own languages, including one designed for those who are not bishops or priests, “to reflect upon and bring forward perspectives that can often be missed by ordained leaders due to their particular role within the church.”

Other workshops will focus on the Internet and pornography, protecting vulnerable adults, best regional practices and the financial cost of the abuse crisis, which the program says already has reached “more than $2 billion in legal expenses.”