WARSAW, Poland — Catholic leaders from Eastern Europe pledged closer cooperation against sexual abuse by clergy, despite different levels of preparedness, at the region’s first international child protection conference.
A statement from the Sept 19-22 conference said lectures and group sessions had covered “spiritual, theological, legal and pastoral aspects of the crisis,” adding that key themes would be taken to the Synod of Bishops opening Oct. 9 in Rome.
At the end of the conference, Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, Poland, questioned the motive behind some in the church.
“The crisis caused by sexual abuse of minors and neglect by church superiors touches the essence of our church community; these terrible crimes and neglect have robbed many of their faith and blurred the image of God,” said Polak.
“We have taken and are taking actions in response. But we cannot help asking what was and is the motive behind our actions. Are we not sometimes dominated by fear of the media and public opinion, the desire to improve our image, fear of losing our position further, of criminal consequences?”
The conference was organized by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the Polish bishops’ conference for church representatives and child protection experts from 20 countries.
Polak said the conference had facilitated “praying together for the wounded church,” adding that bishops and clergy across Eastern Europe would need to work together and get help from lay leaders in providing a pastoral and professional response.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, president of the child protection commission, told Vatican Radio Sept. 22 he had personally witnessed the “devastating effect” of abuse on “trust and faith in the church,” with many victims still feeling rejected. He said he considered tackling the issue his most important task as a bishop.
“Jesus’ first priority was healing, and his second was announcing the Gospel — but people are not going to believe the Gospel if they think we don’t care about their children and are going to allow pedophile priests to be transferred from one place to another,” O’Malley said.
“I know a lot of bishops are hesitant. But people are angry because they’ve been wronged, and they seek justice and healing. It’s very tragic that many have lost faith in the church because of this. So our task is to try to bring that healing and allow people to return to the church.”
Sexual abuse has been reported across Eastern Europe by clergy from the Catholic church and other denominations, notably in Poland, where 10 bishops have faced sanctions for ignoring complaints.
Leaders from different countries spoke throughout the sessions.
Father Grzegorz Strzelczyk, a child protection officer from Poland’s Katowice Diocese, told the conference Sept. 21 the “very survival of religious communities” would now depend on a “proper response by church structures,” while German Myriam Wijlens, a canon law professor and member of the pontifical commission, said many mistakes had been made, necessitating a more “responsible approach by bishops.”
Albanian Bishop Gjergj Meta noted women in his country would “endure humiliation and violence,” but “react violently when their children are harmed.”
Ukrainian Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Teodor Martynyuk of Ternopil-Zboriv said his church was still “rebuilding its structures” after four decades’ prohibition under Soviet rule and still sought specialists in “psychology, criminology, legal procedures and canon law” to help counter abuse.
The Polish church’s child protection coordinator, Jesuit Father Adam Zak, told the conference he had organized abuse seminars for bishops in several post-communist countries, but said some had mistakenly blamed sexual abuse on “Western decadence and sexual revolution excesses,” and needed to “learn humility.”
“When the media reported disgusting news about sexual scandals in churches of the Western world, a feeling of moral superiority was born in many hearts, which in turn eliminated or weakened sensitivity to the threat of similar crimes in their own environment,” he said.
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