ROME – The Vatican said Saturday it is working to give bishops information on the best ways to combat clergy sex abuse, teaming up with the Jesuit university in Rome to host a major symposium on abuse and launch an Internet learning center for follow-up guidance.
The symposium next February will draw experts in psychiatry, church law, sociology and child protection programs to the Pontifical Gregorian University for three days of meetings and workshops with 200 bishops and religious superiors.
The meetings are designed in part to help bishops draft guidelines to combat abuse that must be submitted to the Holy See by next year for review.
The Gregorian will also launch a multi-lingual Internet learning center to provide church leaders with the latest in ongoing research on how to prevent abuse, train priests properly, protect children and help victims heal. Private donors have pledged funds to maintain the database for an initial three years, officials said.
It's the latest initiative by the Vatican to try to repair the damage from the devastating revelations recently of thousands of people from around the world who say they were raped and molested by priests as children. For decades, bishops covered up the crimes and the Vatican turned a blind eye to the reports, a scandal that has become one of the greatest crises the Catholic Church has faced in decades.
Pope Benedict XVI has said the church must engage in a path of "healing, renewal and reparation" to emerge from the crisis and restore trust in the church, and the Vatican recently gave bishops a host of recommendations to consider when drafting their guidelines to fight abuse.
Yet many victims groups have held out little hope for much change given that bishops themselves have been blamed for much of the scandal, since it was they who covered up the crimes and moved molesters around from parish to parish to abuse again rather than reporting them to police.
No bishop has ever been disciplined for failing to stop an abuser. Victims' advocates argue that without any enforcement mechanism requiring bishops to comply with church law or their own guidelines, children will remain at risk.
The Vatican's sex crimes prosecutor Monsignor Charles Scicluna acknowledged Saturday that bishops "come in all shapes and sizes" and the Vatican spokesman admitted some bishops' conferences have no interest in being forced into drafting guidelines.
But Scicluna told reporters that bishops would be unwise to ignore the advice of experts at the symposium and disregard the Vatican's clear instruction to come up with adequate guidelines by next year. His Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will review the proposals, which are due by May, against the Vatican's own suggestions.
Scicluna stressed that ordinary faithful have not only the right but the duty to inform the Vatican, via the papal nuncio or ambassador in each country, when a situation of abuse is affecting the life of the diocese.
"It's not to denounce their bishops or betray their bishops" but to bring their concerns directly to the pope, Scicluna said.
He and the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, insisted the symposium wasn't a quick-hit meeting that would result in a "nicely bound book" of conference papers that are left to gather dust. Months of preparation have gone into selecting speakers and the online learning center, based on a program created by the Ulm University Hospital in Benedict's native Germany, will provide the crucial follow-up guidance for bishops over time, they said.
"It's an element of a profound and serious process of healing and renewal," Lombardi said.