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Catholic leaders launch global drive to catch pedophile priests

ROME – Roman Catholic Church leaders have unveiled an Internet teaching project to help clergy around the world root out pedophiles in their ranks and protect children from potential abusers.

Ending a four-day conference on child abuse in Rome Thursday, Father Francois-Xavier Dumortier said the $1.60 million project would provide multilingual advice and access to research on pedophilia and how to respond to the problem.

"It will help to develop a culture of listening ... a different face to the culture of silence," said Dumortier, who is rector at the Pontifical Gregorian University where the conference was held.

An association for victims of abuse, while not commenting directly on the Internet project, has dismissed the conference as "window dressing" and said the Vatican should publish its documentation on abuse and hand it over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that the permissive sexual culture of the 1960s and 1970s created stress for priests poorly trained to deal with it and that the surge in sexual abuse of children by priests mirrored the same trends in society. NBC's Lisa Myers reports.

Victims' groups for years have accused some bishops in the Church of preferring silence and cover-up to coming clean on the scandal, which has darkened the image of the Church around the world.

Experts to bishops: Child sex abusers lie, trust victims

But on Wednesday the Vatican's top official for dealing with sexual abuse of minors, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, said hiding behind a culture of "omerta" -- the Italian word for the Mafia's code of silence -- would be deadly for the Church.

The symposium brought together some 200 people including bishops, leaders of religious orders, victims of abuse and psychologists, and some participants saw it as a turning point in the Church's approach to the crisis.

While speaking to thousands of priests gathered for a three-day conference, Pope Benedict XVI said the church must beg for "forgiveness from God" for the sins of priests who abused children. NBC's Jim Maceda has more details.

"The Church now has a baseline about where we are starting from," Brendan Geary from the Marist Brothers religious order said.

"We start by listening to victims and hearing their experience. We make sure the Church has the highest standards for protecting children."

Asia – next crisis?
However, a top Asian church official told the conference that a culture of silence prevalent on the continent has kept many victims from coming forward, as concerns rise that Asia may be the next ground zero in the abuse scandal.

Monsignor Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, Philippines, said deference to church authorities in places like the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines may also have contributed to keeping a lid on reports. He said more and more victims have come forward in the past five years in the Philippines, but that incidents of priests keeping mistresses still far outpace reports of priests preying on children.

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Tagle's presentation made clear that the sex abuse scandal — which first erupted in Ireland in the 1990s, the United States in 2002, and Europe at large in 2010 — hadn't yet reached Asia.

But the concern is very real that it might: In November, the federation of Asian bishops' conferences said the church has to take "drastic and immediate measures" to contain the problem before it gets out of hand. 

Tagle said he didn't know if the steady increase in victims coming forward over the last five years is "a prelude to an explosion," but he acknowledged that the reported cases are probably a fraction of the total.

"How Asians normally respond to an embarrassing situation is to preserve one's dignity, to preserve one's honor. Usually that takes the form of silence," he told reporters. "It's not because the person doesn't want to share it, but that by divulging everything, the little bit of honor that is left in me will be taken away from me."

He said mandatory reporting laws, which would compel bishops or religious superiors to report accusations of abuse to police, would be "difficult culturally" to swallow in many Asian countries where victims may prefer to seek justice discreetly, within the church's own legal system. 

‘No substitute for openness, transparency’  
The Internet-based "Center for Child Protection" will work with medical institutions and universities to develop what the Church hopes will be a constant response to the problems of sexual abuse.

It will be posted in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian and help bishops and other church workers put into place Vatican guidelines to protect children.

The message from Vatican officials who have addressed the symposium is that local Church officials must cooperate with civil authorities according to local law in cases of suspected pedophilia.

The scandals have led to costly legal action, are blamed for an exodus of believers in some European nations, including Pope Benedict's native Germany, and have damaged the Church's moral standing in hitherto staunchly Catholic states.

Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx gave a speech at the close of the symposium pointing out that the scandal had cost the church credibility "from which it has yet to recover."

"Stonewalling, trivialization and relativization will not foster a new credibility," he said. "There can therefore be no substitute for openness, transparency and truthfulness."

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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