Roman Catholic leaders have begun an unprecedented summit in Rome on how the church should tackle the sexual abuse of children by priests.
In a Vatican statement, Pope Benedict said “healing for victims” should be a major concern as much as “profound renewal of the Church at every level”.
The summit aims to produce guidelines on tackling abusive priests and helping police to prosecute paedophile crime.
Victims’ groups, who were not invited, have dismissed it as a PR exercise.
“You don’t need a jolly in Rome to learn what the right thing to do is,” said Sue Cox of Survivors Voice, a coalition of victim support groups covering Britain, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and the US.
“This is just a PR stunt. It’s just theatre really. It’s no use whatsoever,” Ms Cox, herself a victim of abuse by a priest, told the AFP news agency.
Bishops from more than 100 countries and 32 heads of religious orders are among those taking part in the four days of discussions.
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the senior Vatican official in charge of investigating the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, said bishops had already been sent a “very clear message” that they must follow civil law on paedophile cases.
“When crime has happened and the civil authorities justifiably ask for co-operation and request co-operation, the church cannot decline that co-operation. Concerning reporting mechanisms, our strong advice is to follow the law of the country concerned,” he said.
The summit would consider ways to help bishops and other church workers with that process, including establishing an e-learning centre on the internet with advice in several languages, he said.
The Vatican is under pressure to concentrate more on protecting victims of sexual abuse rather than, as in the past, rallying to the defence of priests accused of these crimes, the BBC’s David Willey in Rome reports.
Only one victim – Marie Collins from Ireland – has been invited to attend the summit.
She said her decision to attend was not an easy one.
“Despite apologies for the actions of the abusers, there have been few apologies for protection given to them by their superiors,” said Ms Collins, who was raped at age of 13 by a hospital chaplain in Dublin.
“There seems to be a lack of penalty for any of these men in leadership who deliberately or negligently covered up for abusers.”
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