ROME (AP) — A top American cardinal on Monday defended Pope Benedict's handling of sexual abuse cases by clergy, saying he should be praised not criticized, as advocates for abuse victims demanded that the Vatican release its secret files on pedophile priests.
Cardinal William Levada told a Vatican-backed symposium on safeguarding children that Benedict had been "instrumental" in implementing standards to crack down on pedophile clergy as well as supportive of U.S. bishops' efforts to fight the abuse.
Before becoming pontiff, Benedict held Levada's job as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church office ensuring doctrinal purity and, in recent decades, also shaping the Holy See's policies on handling abuse cases involving clergy.
As the symposium's keynote opening speaker, Levada lamented that the pope "has had to suffer attacks by the media over these past years in various parts of the world when he should receive the gratitude of us all, in the Church and outside it." The Vatican released copies of the speech.
SNAP, a U.S-based support and advocacy group for those abused as minors by clergy, was dismissive of the four-day, closed-door gathering.
"True change and child protection comes through accountability from secular authorities," a SNAP official, Joelle Casteix, said in a statement. "Until we have that, we must see Rome's meeting for exactly what it is: cheap window dressing."
She contended the Vatican "still cannot do the simplest, cheapest, and most child-friendly action possible: Make public decades of secret files on clergy sex offenders and enablers."
SNAP and other victims' groups have contended that Roman Catholic church leaders, both in dioceses, religious institutions and at the Vatican, have systematically protected or covered up the abuse, including by shuttling pedophile priests from parish to parish.
Levada in his speech acknowledged some shortcomings in the church's handling of abuse.
"The more than 4,000 cases of sexual abuse of minors reported to the CDF (the congregation on doctrine) in the past decade have revealed, on the one hand, the inadequacy of an exclusively canonical (or canon law) response to this tragedy, and on the other, the necessity of a truly multifaceted response," he said.
Benedict, in a message sent to the symposium on his behalf, urged participants to "continue drawing on a wide range of expertise in order to promote throughout the church a vigorous culture of effective safeguarding and victim support."
Addressing the gathering later this week will be German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who heads the Munich diocese, which Benedict led before his transfer to the Vatican 30 years ago. Benedict's tenure as Munich archbishop has come under scrutiny since a pedophile priest in that diocese was allowed to resume pastoral work while being treated.
The number of people leaving the Catholic church in Germany has jumped in recent years as the abuse scandal widened there.
Levada last year urged all bishops conferences worldwide to develop guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
"Even those of us who have been dealing with this issue for decades recognize that we are still learning, and need to help each other find the best ways to help victims, protect children, and form the priests of today and tomorrow to be aware of this scourge and to eliminate it from the priesthood," Levada told the symposium.
An Irish woman raped as a teen by a priest in a Dublin hospital will be speaking Tuesday at the meeting. The woman, Marie Collins, urged Benedict last week to publicly seek forgiveness for church leaders who put loyalty to their institution ahead of safety of children.
Among participants at the symposium dedicated to fostering healing are Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of Ireland's 4 million Catholics. Brady, who in 2010 admitted he helped to conceal the crimes of a serial rapist-priest from Irish authorities in the mid-1970s, has rejected calls to resign.
Next week, Benedict will raise 22 churchmen to the rank of cardinal, including a former bishop of Savona, Italy, who abuse victims allege failed to act for years on accusations of pedophile cases in that diocese. Monsignor Domenico Calcagno currently heads a Vatican office.
Francesco Zanardi, a victim, last year walked 550 kilometers (340 miles) from Savona to the Vatican to unsuccessfully demand a papal audience. He said Monday the local abuse survivor group is petitioning the pope to suspend Calcagno's nomination to cardinal.
A Savona priest recently received a year's suspended sentence by an Italian court in a plea bargain after being accused of abusing dozens of minors.