Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis on Sunday vowed to tackle every single case of sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church, comparing pedophilia to “human sacrifice” in a speech that left victims cold.
His public address to top bishops at the end of a landmark summit in the Vatican promised an “all-out battle” against abusive priests, but blamed the devil and insisted the Church was not the only place children were assaulted.
“If in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness”, Francis promised.
“I am reminded of the cruel religious practice, once widespread in certain cultures, of sacrificing human beings – frequently children – in pagan rites,” he said.
The sexual abuse of minors was “a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies,” Francis said, and he slammed those priests who prey on children as “tools of Satan”.
“I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas… for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth,” he said.
Children must be “protected from ravenous wolves”, he said, adding: “We stand face to face with the mystery of evil”.
– ‘Waste of time’ –
The scandals have hit countries around the world, with lives devastated from Australia to Chile, Germany and the US.
The Argentine had opened the four-day meeting by calling for “concrete measures” against child sex abuse and handing 114 senior bishops a roadmap to shape the debate on tackling paedophile priests.
The 82-year-old had warned victims to lower their expectations, saying much of the work would be done post-summit.
Swiss victim Jean-Marie Furbringer said: “Honestly it’s a pastoral ‘blabla’, saying it’s the fault of the devil”.
“It talks about the devil, it talks about evil… There is no talk about permanently excluding child rapists and abusers who are employees of the Church,” said Britain’s Peter Saunders, a victim who resigned from a Vatican advisory commission on combating abuse.
“From a child protection point of view it’s been a waste of time. From keeping the world’s eyes on this institution and its failure to protect children, it’s been a great success,” he said.
The meeting has been marked by soul-seeking and self-recrimination by the Church, and horror stories from abuse victims.
In his lengthy speech, Francis said the Church would draw inspiration from the “best practices” in the Seven Strategies for Ending Violence against Children, measures developed under the guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
He said the Church “in developing her legislation” will focus on eight aspects: “the protection of children”, “impeccable seriousness”, “genuine purification”, “formation”, “strengthening and reviewing guidelines by Episcopal Conferences” and “accompaniment of those who have been abused”.
– ‘Heed their cries’ –
Those gathered at the Vatican heard testimonies from victims, one of whom was forced to have three abortions after being abused for years by a priest who beat her, while another said he had been molested more than 100 times.
“The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power,” Francis said.
“It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry,” he added.
But Francesco Zanardi, survivor and head of Italian victims’ association Rete Abuso, said the Vatican had “lost credibility”.
“We wanted to see measures, to see the bishops (guilty of protecting paedophile priests) named. Start by opening the Vatican archives, not by destroying documents. Start handing documents over to the civil authorities,” he said.
The Vatican has in the past refused to hand over internal documents about abuse cases to police investigating paedophilia.
German Cardinal Reinhard Marx admitted Saturday that “files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created”.
The admission sparked an angry reaction from the international association ECA (Ending Clerical Abuse), which slammed the destruction of such documents “illegal” and called for an investigation.