ROME (AP) — An extraordinary summit between Irish bishops and Pope Benedict XVI opened Monday with a prayer and fraternal kisses in what Ireland’s top bishop called a first step toward repentance for the country’s clergy sex abuse scandal.
The delegation’s top member, Cardinal Sean Brady, archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland, told Vatican Radio the two-day meeting was part of a “journey of repentance, reconciliation and renewal” for the Irish Church.
An investigation last year revealed that church leaders in Dublin had spent decades protecting child-abusing priests from the law while many fellow clerics turned a blind eye. A separate report in Ireland released months earlier documented decades of sexual, physical and psychological abuse in Catholic-run schools, workhouses and orphanages.
The revelations shocked the predominantly Catholic nation.
Clogher Bishop Joseph Duffy said resignations were not on the agenda in Rome, despite victims’ demands that clerics who played a role in concealing pedophile priests step down.
The 24 bishops went one by one to the pontiff and kissed his hand in a sign of fraternal respect in the first of two sessions on Monday.
On Tuesday, before heading back to Ireland for Ash Wednesday penance services, the bishops will have one more session with Benedict, who before becoming pope had decried “filth” among some ranks of clerics in the worldwide church.
Benedict asked each bishop where they were from before prayers began the summit and cameras were ushered out of the salon in the Apostolic Palace. The meeting continued behind closed doors.
The Holy See planned to comment only after the summit ends early Tuesday afternoon.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said one point of discussion will be the special pastoral letter Benedict has promised to send on the abuse scandal. Duffy indicated on Sunday that the letter’s issuance is not imminent because of the complexity of the scandal.
Victims have been clamoring not only for resignations, including of one of the bishops at the summit, but for the Vatican to take clear responsibility for what they call a culture of concealment of abuse.
Several Irish bishops have agreed to resign, including two who stepped down on Christmas Day, but others have flatly refused.
If the pontiff’s letter “limits itself to … expressions of regret, there will be considerable disappointment among the faithful,” read an editorial Monday in the Irish Times.
Bishops will each speak with the pontiff about their views and knowledge of decades-long sexual, psychological and physical abuse of minors by parish priests and by clergy in Catholic orphanages, workhouses, and other institutions.
“Trials that come from inside are of course the most difficult and humiliating,” the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said in a homily during Mass before the summit’s opening. “(But) every kind of trial can become a motive for purification and sanctification as long as one is illuminated by faith … and as long as the sinner recognizes his sin.”
Among the bishops at the summit will be Martin Drennan of Galway, who has insisted he did nothing to endanger children, and rebuffed calls that he stepped down.
In the Dublin report, investigators determined that a succession of archbishops and senior aides had compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. The files had remained locked in the Dublin archbishop’s private vault.
Abuse victims, galvanized by former altar boy Andrew Madden, who in 1995 became the first Irish person to go public with a lawsuit against the church, have accused the pope and his diplomat in Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, of hiding behind “diplomatic protocols” in refusing to respond to letters from Irish investigators about the extent of abuse and cover-up.
Leanza is a summit participant.
The reports follow a campaign by the archbishop of Dublin and primate of Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, to confront abuse allegations and deal honestly with the cover-up and victims’ suffering. Martin, who heads the Holy See’s office on justice, had welcomed the bishops’ resignations last year.
Among the Holy See officials joining the summit is U.S. Cardinal William Levada, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a key Vatican office that reviews abuse claims against clergy worldwide.
The pope himself once held the office, when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and led it during the years of John Paul II’s papacy, which was stained by an explosion of sex abuse and cover-up scandals in the United States, Australia and other countries.
Duffy said the bishops’ discussions with Benedict would be frank.
“It is my information that the pope is very well clued in on this issue, that even before he became pope he had access to the documentation, and that he know exactly what was in the documentation, and that he wasn’t living in a fool’s paradise,” Duffy said.
During pilgrimages to the U.S. and Australia, Benedict has met privately with sex abuse victims.
In recent weeks, a new sexual abuse scandal involving clergy has erupted in the Catholic church in Benedict’s homeland of Germany.