Vatican increasingly concerned about piracy

The Vatican is becoming increasingly concerned about piracy and opened a conference Monday on providing better assistance to hijacked sailors and their families back home.

It's not as unusual as it sounds: The Vatican has long been concerned with the care of sailors through its Apostleship of the Sea, also known as Stella Maris, a Catholic welfare agency that sends chaplains to cargo tankers and cruise ships alike.

But the record number of pirate attacks and hostage-taking last year has prompted alarm that spiritual, psychological and financial needs are going unmet, particularly among Asians who form the vast majority of captured crews.

"While the owners pay soaring ransoms for the recovery of vessels and cargos, seafarers, (fishermen) and their families are paying the highest price in terms of psychological trauma and other consequences," the Rev. Gabriele Bentoglio, under-secretary in the Vatican's office for migrants, told the conference's opening session.

"Before, during and after their ordeal, very little professional assistance is often offered to these people."

Admiral Pierluigi Cacioppo, vice commander of Italy's ports, told the conference that guidelines must be adopted so that there's a clear protocol on how to prepare sailors for the possibility of attack, then care for them and their families if they are captured, and afterward to cope with any remaining trauma.

He said piracy had become a real additional risk for sailors, who already must deal with being at the mercy of waves and living away from home for months at a time.

Once captured, he said, they are "forced to face precarious situations of extreme hardship, often suffering from hunger, with no economic support for themselves or their families ... desperate or resigned while waiting for someone to pay an unjust ransom."

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to speak to the audience members on Wednesday. The conference is being organized by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, which is responsible for the Apostoleship of the Sea.

The International Maritime Bureau reported that 445 ships were attacked last year, of which 53 were hijacked. Some 1,181 seafarers were captured and eight of them killed.