VATICAN CITY – The Vatican said Friday it was planning to issue a set of guidelines to bishops around the world on responding effectively to the sexual abuse of children by priests that will include recommendations for prevention programs, better screening of priests and the need to obey civil reporting requirements.
Cardinal William Levada, who heads the Vatican office that deals with clerical sex abuse cases, told some 150 cardinals of the guidelines during a daylong summit Friday that dealt in part with the sex abuse scandal.
A Vatican statement said Levada discussed the need for bishops to collaborate with civil authorities in reporting abuse, the need to protect children and the need for an "attentive selection and formation" of future priests. It said the guidelines, in the form of a letter to bishops' conferences, would suggest a "coordinated and efficient program" to crack down on abuse.
Levada has previously said he thought the tough, zero-tolerance approach applied in U.S. could be a model for bishops conferences globally. Those norms were developed in 2002 after the clerical abuse scandal erupted in the United States.
They bar credibly accused priests from any public church work while claims against them are under investigation. Diocesan review boards, comprised mostly of lay people, help bishops oversee cases. Clergy found guilty are permanently barred from public ministry and, in some cases, ousted from the priesthood.
The church abuse scandal erupted anew earlier this year in Europe and beyond with thousands of reports of priests who molested children, bishops who covered up for them and Vatican officials who turned a blind eye for decades. The Vatican has been reeling from the fallout, and included the issue on its agenda for a one-day summit of cardinals who were gathering in Rome for a ceremony on Saturday to name 24 new cardinals.
The Vatican statement said several cardinals spoke during the meeting of the need to encourage bishops' conferences to develop "efficient, prompt, articulated, complete and decisive plans to protect minors" that took into account the need for various types of intervention, including the need for the "reestablishment of justice, assistance to victims, prevention and formation" — even in countries where the problem hasn't been felt.
The main U.S. victims group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, was not impressed, saying children remain at risk.
"We didn't have high hopes for this meeting because these church officials are the same men who ignored and concealed, and are largely still ignoring and concealing, horrific crimes against kids," said David Clohessy, SNAP's national director.
Four SNAP members from the United States, Belgium, Germany and Britain, staged a brief demonstration in Rome's Piazza Navona on Friday to demand the Vatican do more to protect children by releasing the names of known pedophile priests and turning over documentation about their crimes.
Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl, the arcibhshop of Washington, D.C., said Levada had told the gathering of cardinals that he thought the U.S. norms had combatted the problem credibly. Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a former archbishop of San Francisco and Portland, Oregon who helped develop the "zero tolerance" policy in the U.S.
"Child protection is the big positive thing now and we've taken care of the problem," Wuerl told the AP after the meeting. "We need to look to the future, and what we can do to make sure" children are safe.
In addition to clerical abuse, Friday's meeting also dealt with the Vatican's unprecedented invitation to Anglicans disaffected by the ordination of women priests and bishops to convert to the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican last year made it easier for Anglicans to convert by allowing them to retain some of their liturgical practices and heritage.
As the cardinals were meeting, the church in Britain announced that about 50 Church of England priests had expressed interest in joining five of their bishops in converting to Roman Catholicism and that the first so-called personal ordinariate would be erected in January to welcome them into the fold.
Levada briefed the cardinals on the nature and origin of the Vatican's decision, the Vatican statement said.
On Saturday, the cardinals will all attend a Mass to welcome 24 new prelates into their elite club. The 24 new "princes of the church" bring the College of Cardinals to 203, 121 of whom are under age 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave.