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Abuse victims want pope to open Argentina files

Tuesday - 3/19/2013, 10:15pm  ET

FILE - In this June 10, 2009 file photo, Argentine Catholic priest Julio Grassi talks to reporters as he leaves a courthouse after being found guilty of sexual abuse in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A U.S. group that tracks clergy abuse is calling on Pope Francis to apologize for the Argentine church's protection of two priests convicted of abusing children. The Bishop Accountability group cites the case of Father Julio Cesar Grassi, who ran the "Happy Children" foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008. Now Grassi is free on appeal, thanks in part to the church’s report. (AP Photo/Rolando Andrade Stracuzzi, File)

MICHAEL WARREN
Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- A Roman Catholic activist group said Tuesday that Pope Francis was slow as head of the Argentine church to act against sexual abuse by clergy and urged him to apologize for what it called church protection for two priests later convicted of sexually assaulting children.

A lawyer for some of the victims, meanwhile, said the future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had not met with or helped victims, and charged that mid-level church officials who covered up the problem haven't lost their jobs.

The Buenos Aires archbishop's office didn't immediately comment on the complaints, which came as Francis was being installed as pope in a Vatican ceremony seen around the world.

The U.S.-based Bishop Accountability group cited the cases of two priests: Father Julio Cesar Grassi, who ran the "Happy Children" foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008, and Father Napoleon Sasso, convicted in 2007 of abusing girls at a soup kitchen in suburban Buenos Aires, where he was assigned after being accused of pedophilia elsewhere.

Grassi is currently free pending appeal, thanks partly to a court filing on his behalf by the Argentine church, which was headed by Bergoglio as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio oversaw Argentina's bishops conference when Sasso was assigned to the soup kitchen at a chapel, said the victims attorney, Ernesto Moreau.

Bishop Accountability co-director Anne Doyle said those events show Bergoglio was behind the curve in the Catholic Church's global struggle to deal with sex abuse by its priests, which erupted in 2002 after thousands of cases became public in the United States and around the world.

"We would be alarmed if the Archbishop Bergoglio had done this in the '60s or '70s. That would be sad and disturbing," Doyle told The Associated Press. "But the fact that he did this just five years ago, when other bishops in other countries were meeting victims and implementing tough reporting laws, it puts him behind some of his American counterparts, that's for sure."

The group said that to send a message of zero tolerance in the church around the world, the new pope should tell the Buenos Aires archdiocese to release the complete files on the Grassi and Sasso cases, publicly identify any other priests who are "credibly accused" of sex abuse and endorse mandatory reporting by church officials to law enforcement of suspected abuse.

The pope himself should admit that he was wrong to defend abusive priests, apologize to the victims of Grassi and Sasso, and offer to meet with the victims, the group said.

Noting the pope's coronation, Doyle said: "The victims of these two priests are the very children of God about whom he was speaking in his homily today. They are the most vulnerable of the poor. We hope that Francis will seize this as a priority and reach out to the victims and rectify his terrible insensitivity to them when he was archbishop."

No one has presented evidence that Bergoglio was directly involved covering up sex abuse.

But Moreau told the AP that Bergoglio, as the top authority for the Argentine church, was ultimately responsible for the treatment of the victims, who have yet to get medical treatment or compensation.

"Bergoglio has been the strongest man in the Argentine church since the beginning of this century," Moreau said, and yet "the leadership of the church has never done anything to remove these people from these places, and neither has it done anything to relieve the pain of the victims."

At the Vatican, Francis will be ultimately responsible for the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which last year told the church's bishops conferences around the globe to draw up comprehensive guidelines to deal with sexual abusive clergy. It gave the bishops a year to draft guidelines to better screen priests, root out potential abusers, educate laity about the problem, and require bishops to report suspected abuse to civil authorities where civil reporting laws exist.

The pope's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, told the AP before Bergoglio was elected pope last week that he had drawn an increasingly tough line on clergy abuse. Bergoglio insisted that accused priests face trial, and imposed a thorough screening process in an attempt to weed out future problems, Rubin said.

In the 2012 book "On Heaven and Earth," in which Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka engage in a religious dialogue, the future pope said the church should not ignore the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

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