ROME — Psychologists told bishops from around the world Tuesday that priests who rape and molest children usually lie when confronted with an accusation, and that the church should listen to victims since they usually tell the truth and need to be believed in order to heal.
The messages were delivered at a Vatican-backed symposium on clerical sex abuse that is aimed at compelling bishops to create tough policies to protect children and root out pedophiles from the priesthood.
Survivors of clerical abuse have long said that when they summoned the courage to denounce their abuser to church leaders, bishops often dismissed their accusation and instead accepted the word of their priests, whom bishops consider their brothers and sons in the priesthood.
That pattern led to decades in which bishops shuffled pedophiles from parish to parish, while victims were left to feel like they were to blame for the abuse.
Marie Collins, who was assaulted as a 13-year-old by a hospital chaplain in her native Ireland, told the bishops that dynamic led to multiple hospitalizations later in life for anxiety and depression. She told her story of abuse and how the church's response to it — refusing to believe her and taking the word of the priest — devastated her.
"I was treated as someone with an agenda against the church, the police investigation was obstructed and the laity misled. I was distraught," she said.
Eventually, civil authorities prosecuted and jailed the priest, and he has been imprisoned two more times for molesting other children.
Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist who for a decade ran a U.S. treatment center for abusive priests, told the conference Tuesday that just like alcoholics or drug addicts, sexually abusive priests lie when confronted with allegations. They manipulate, they con, they deny.
"There are false allegations to be sure," and it's critical to restore a priest's good name when he has been cleared," Rossetti said in his prepared remarks. "But decades of experience tell us that the vast majority of allegations — over 95 percent — are founded."
As a result, he said, trained civil authorities, not bishops, should determine whether an allegation is well-founded. Even if prosecutors don't proceed with a criminal case, either because too much time has passed or evidence is lacking, bishops should form an advisory panel of law enforcement, mental health and canon law experts to investigate and decide how to proceed, Rossetti said.
"When the church listens first to victims, as Pope Benedict repeatedly has done, we learn the truth," he said.
The Vatican, however, has been more than lukewarm to the idea of so-called lay review boards helping bishops decide whether any canon laws were broken or whether the priest should be reported to police.
In ordering bishops conferences around the world to come up with abuse policies by May, the Vatican diminished the role that lay review boards might have, saying while they may be "foreseen" in some places they cannot substitute for the discernment of bishops.
There have been several recent high-profile cases in the United States and Ireland — which together have some of the toughest policies on the books — where bishops declined to inform their review boards about potential accusations and where prosecutors later indicted the clergymen.
Dr. Sheila Hollins, a psychiatrist, said victims need to be heard by the church to start healing from their abuse. Not being believed, she said, only compounds the trauma.
Advocates for victims have dismissed the symposium as "cheap window dressing," but organizers say it shows an unprecedented commitment by the Vatican to crack down on abuse after years of turning a blind eye.
The abuse scandal, which erupted in the 1990s in Ireland and in 2002 in the United States, exploded across Europe in 2010, with thousands of victims coming forward.
On Monday in the keynote address, Cardinal William Levada, who heads the Vatican office that deals with abuse cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said his office has received more than 4,000 abuse cases in the past decade. In March 2010 the figure stood at 3,000, the bulk of them from the United States. Vatican officials privately have acknowledged some 400 cases annually are now being reported to Rome, though mostly from places other than the U.S.