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Vatican Starts 4-Day Summit On Clergy Sex Abuse


At the opening of a landmark Vatican summit, Pope Francis warned church leaders that the faithful are demanding concrete action against the clerical sex abuse that has devastated the Catholic Church's credibility. But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, abuse survivors are skeptical that this will be little more than a consciousness-raising session. A note to our listeners - this story includes language describing sexual assault.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pope Francis told the 190 participants to listen to the cry of the young seeking justice.


POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: He reminded them, the holy people of God are watching us, and they are expecting concrete, effective measures rather than simple condemnations. He was followed by video of traumatic testimonies of abuse by five anonymous survivors. A man from Chile told them, you are physicians of the soul, and yet with rare exceptions, you have been transformed in some cases into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith.

He was followed by a woman who said, from the age of 15, I had sexual relations with a priest. I got pregnant three times, and he made me have abortions three times quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives. I have a life destroyed. Philippines Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up as he acknowledged to the gathering that wounds have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims.


LUIS TAGLE: We need to help them to express their deep hurts and to help heal from them. Regarding the perpetrators, we need to serve justice, help them to face the truth without rationalization and at the same time not neglect their inner world, their own wounds.

POGGIOLI: Pope Francis handed out what he called 21 points for reflection, including drafting a handbook on steps Church leaders must take in investigating allegations, specific rules for bishops accused of cover-ups, having lay experts involved in investigations and protection and treatment of victims. And the Vatican's top sex crimes detective, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, delivered a step-by-step lesson on how to investigate abuse cases.


CHARLES SCICLUNA: Talking about prevention, it's important to empower our community. And I talked about a culture of disclosure in order to offer an alternative to a culture of silence.

POGGIOLI: The summit comes three decades since scandals erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years since the United States was hit. Abuse survivors have arrived in Rome from around the world demanding universal laws establishing zero tolerance. One of them is Juan Carlos Cruz, victim of a notorious Chilean predator priest.

JUAN CARLOS CRUZ: Raping a child has been a crime in the first century, in the middle ages, now, and it will be in the future. I don't find any excuse to not change radically because the church is on borrowed time right now.

POGGIOLI: But Vatican officials have up to now justified the absence of universal rules and mandatory reporting to civil authorities, saying accused clergy could be unfairly persecuted in authoritarian states where Catholics are a threatened minority. The summit continues through Sunday, winding up with a speech by Pope Francis. It's not known whether it will contain specific new rules on how to hold accountable predator priests and the bishops who cover up for them. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.