Pope Francis presents action plan for tackling clerical sex abuse but victims dismiss it as inadequate

Nick Squires
Pope Francis prays during the opening of the global child protection summit at the Vatican - AFP

Pope Francis put forward a 21-point plan for combating the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on Thursday, but the proposals were dismissed by victims as wholly inadequate and a recycling of procedures that already exist.

The list of “reflection points” was put forward by the Pope on the first day of a summit that was convened in response to sex abuse scandals that have undermined faith in the Catholic Church around the world.

"The holy people of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken," the Pope said as the conference, the first of its kind, got underway at the Vatican. "Hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice.”

The nearly 200 bishops, cardinals and heads of religious orders attending the conference were addressed by victims of predatory priests, with one telling them bluntly: “You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed into murderers of the soul. What a terrible contradiction.”

Another victim, warning that clerical sex abuse in Asia is a “time bomb” waiting to explode, said: “I have been sexually molested for a long time, over 100 times, and this has created trauma and flashbacks.”

Pope Francis arrives for the opening of the summit on protecting children and minors from predatory priests    Credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

The testimonies of victims from around the world were described as “searing, brutal and honest” by Hans Zollner, a German priest who is one of the conference organisers.

The 21 points drawn up by the Pope are intended as a road map for the bishops and cardinals as they consider how to stamp out the scourge of priests raping and molesting children.

Many have already been enacted in countries like Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, but are often not observed in other countries, particularly in the developing world.

The first point called for the drawing up of “a practical handbook indicating the steps to be taken by authorities at key moments when a case emerges.”

Sex abuse survivor Peter Isley, from the pressure group Ending Clergy Abuse  Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP

But campaigners said such guidelines were already established within the Church.

“A handbook like this was drawn up in Canada back in 1992,” said Bernadette Howell, an abuse victim originally from Ireland but now living in Canada.

“So after 25 years, this is not new. These seem to be platitudes.”

The proposals recommend that once an abuse case is reported, civil authorities must be notified, and call for “specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops.”

Peter Isely, the head of survivors’ group Ending Clergy Abuse, said: “It’s too vague. What counts would be zero tolerance, written into Church law.

“On Monday morning, will it be clear to every priest, bishop and cardinal that if you’ve been determined to have assaulted a child, you will be removed from ministry? That’s all that counts and that needs to be crystal clear,” said Mr Isely, from Milwaukee, who wasabused by a priest when he was a boy.

There is no guarantee that the guidelines put forward by the pontiff will be adopted by the bishops, who represent dioceses on five continents.

“The 21 points given to us by the Holy Father are very important and they are a road map for discussion,” said Charles Scicluna, a Maltese archbishop who spent a decade as the Vatican’s chief sex abuse prosecutor.

“They have to be taken seriously and we are going to discuss them but there won’t be an answer to all of them in three days.”

Archbishop Scicluna said ahead of the summit that reforms would necessitate the “tweaking” of canon law.

The idea that Church regulations only need some fine-tuning angered critics.

Survivors of clerical sex abuse, including Briton Peter Saunders, outside Castel Sant' Angelo near the Vatican  Credit: Gregorio Borgia/AP

"Canon law has to be changed: not tweaked, not modified, but fundamentally changed, so that it stops prioritising the priesthood... over the lives of children,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of Bishop Accountability, an organisation that documents cases of sexual abuse by clergy.

Faith in the Catholic Church has been shattered by scandals in many countries, from Ireland to Australia.

In a particular low point for the Church, a grand jury in Pennsylvania reported last year that 300 priests in the state had sexually abused about 1,000 minors over a period of 70 years.

The report was the most comprehensive investigation into clerical abuse in US history and accused bishops of protecting priests, sending them to “treatment centres” and then reassigning them to different parishes.