For a church hierarchy excoriated for decades over the sexual abuse of children in its trust, hosting a conference this week about the spreading scourge of online child pornography was an opportunity to strike a positive note about the Vatican’s role in protecting minors.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, when asked Tuesday night at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome if the Catholic Church could lead a global response to the problem.
But in an awkward confluence of events, the four-day congress, Child Dignity in the Digital World, is taking place mere weeks after the Holy See recalled Msgr. Carlo Capella, a church diplomat in the Vatican Embassy in Washington, amid accusations that he had possessed child pornography.
It was just the latest of the abuse accusations against priests that have dogged the church around the globe for decades even as it has promised to punish predators and protect the preyed upon. Advocates for the victims have questioned the church’s commitment.
Last week, as organizers prepared for the congress — with its keynote address by Cardinal Parolin, the second-highest-ranking official after Pope Francis; blanket coverage by the church’s news media; and a papal audience with Francis on Friday — the Canadian police issued an arrest warrant for Monsignor Capella. He was accused of distributing child pornography during a Christmas visit in 2016 to Ontario.
Cardinal Parolin, speaking to reporters on Tuesday before his address, called the case a “very painful affair, a great trial for all those who are involved.” He said the priest’s case was being handled with the “utmost seriousness.” The Vatican has also said that the Holy See’s chief prosecutor was investigating and that if the monsignor was tried and convicted, he could be sentenced up to 12 years in a Vatican jail.
The Vatican has done much to address child abuse by clergy members, which has threatened to stain the entire church. (Pope Benedict XVI once memorably called it “filth.”) It has removed abusive priests, worked more closely with local law enforcement officials, toughened its laws and generally adopted a “zero tolerance” approach.
But advocates for victims have argued that the Vatican’s invocation of diplomatic immunity to recall the Italian monsignor from the United States shows that it still prioritizes protecting its own.
In his speech before top Italian officials and representatives from Interpol, the United Nations, Russia, China, the United States, Facebook and Microsoft, Cardinal Parolin spoke at length about the growing threat of internet abuse on the spirit and psyches of young users. He acknowledged that when it came to the exploitation and abuse of children, “over the past few decades, this tragic reality has come powerfully to the fore in the Catholic Church, and extremely grave facts have emerged.”
Last month, Francis said in unscripted remarks to a commission he had created to advise him on the issue that the church had “arrived late” to the crisis. He lamented his leniency, early in his pontificate, toward an Italian priest who subsequently continued his abuse.
“The old practice of moving people around and not confronting the problem made consciences fall asleep,” the pope said. He said he would limit the chances of pedophile priests to appeal their convictions by church tribunals.
But critics say Vatican action has lagged behind the pope’s words. For example, a tribunal to discipline bishops who cover up abuse was disbanded because, the pope said, the Vatican already had the requisite offices to deal with the issue.
A commission Francis created with top cardinals, outside experts and abuse victims (the committee’s only two victims have since left) has seemed stifled by Vatican bureaucracy.
And the pope brought Cardinal George Pell to Rome as a top adviser despite allegations of abuse against him. The cardinal is now back in Australia facing charges of sexual assault against minors.
Advocates for abuse victims say they consider the Capella case a shameful echo of an earlier episode involving Josef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop accused of abusing children in the Dominican Republic, where he served as the Vatican ambassador. The Vatican removed the archbishop and denied appeals that he be tried in the Dominican Republic. He was defrocked and died in the Vatican before facing justice.
The Rev. Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said he was confident that this time, the accused cleric would face justice.
“Everyone who commits a crime needs to be punished,” he said. “Period.”
The congress, meanwhile, is seeking ways to protect children in what has been depicted as a frightening digital world, where abusers surf a dark web and child pornography proliferates.
The conference has included top experts in the field speaking about the risks as more children in developing countries go online. They have discussed troubling statistics, such as the finding last year by the Internet Watch Foundation that more than 57,000 websites contained images of children being sexually abused. And they have sat on panels such as one called International Politics and Law Regarding Child Sexual Abuse.
For years, top Vatican officials in Rome had dismissed the abuse crisis as a unique product of the Anglo-Saxon world, and suggested that it had been overplayed by the news media. But organizers of the congress said the majority of the experts came from countries in the global north because that is where the problem has been confronted most aggressively.
In an interview, Father Zollner said that on his global travels looking into the problem, he had observed that bishops and clerics in countries such as Malawi were finally facing an issue they would not talk about as recently as a year ago. But other nations are still constrained by local cultural taboos about discussing child abuse, he said.
Italy, he noted, was not without its own bombshell reports of sexual abuse in the church. He compared the book “Lust,” about abuse in the Vatican, by the investigative journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, to the breakthrough reports by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team on the cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children.
Father Zollner he said the media focus on Monsignor Capella could have a positive side effect and put “more attention to the topic of the congress,” which, he said, was to better understand the phenomenon of child pornography and how to prevent it.
“That is our whole purpose,” he said.
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