ROME (CNS) --- Representatives of most of the world's bishops' conferences and 30 religious orders will meet in Rome in early February to launch a global initiative aimed at improving efforts to stop clerical sexual abuse and better protect children and vulnerable adults. The conference, "Toward Healing and Renewal," will be held Feb. 6-9 at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University and is being supported by the Vatican Secretariat of State and several other Vatican offices. U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with priests accused of abuse, will give the opening address. Other speakers include: a victim of abuse; mental health professionals who have worked in the areas of prevention and treatment; and bishops from different parts of the world, who will talk about responses to the abuse crisis in their countries. The conference is designed in part to help bishops' conferences and superiors of religious orders respond to a 2011 circular letter from the doctrinal congregation requiring all dioceses in the world to develop guidelines on handling allegations of abuse. After the conference, the Gregorian University and other institutions will launch an e-learning center --- the Center for the Protection of Children --- which will offer online resources in five languages. The center will be based in Munich, Germany, and is designed to help church leaders respond pastorally to the issue of sexual abuse in the church and society as a whole. The center has been funded for an initial three-year period. According to the conference program, participants will have an opportunity to attend workshops in their own languages, including one designed for those who are not bishops or priests, "to reflect upon and bring forward perspectives that can often be missed by ordained leaders due to their particular role within the church."
Pope prays for peace, watches dove fly back into his apartment
VATICAN CITY (CNS) --- "Mamma mia," Pope Benedict XVI said as a dove flew over his head and back into his apartment Jan. 29 after he and two Italian school children released the bird as a symbol of peace. The pope and representatives of the Italian Catholic Action children's section release doves during the Sunday Angelus address in late January each year. And, almost every year, at least one of the birds flies back into the papal apartment. Some 2,000 children between the ages of 4 and 14 walked in procession down the boulevard leading to St. Peter's Square carrying homemade banners calling for peace in the world and peace within their families and schools. During his Angelus address, Pope Benedict also marked World Leprosy Day and the international day of prayer for peace in the Holy Land. "In deep communion with the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem and the (Franciscan) custos of the Holy Land, we invoke the gift of peace for that land blessed by God," the pope said. In his brief remarks about World Leprosy Day, the pope not only prayed for those with Hansen's disease and their caregivers, but he also called for a greater commitment "to eliminate poverty and marginalization, the true causes" of the disease's continued spread.
Two women accused of stealing $1 million each from two archdioceses
WASHINGTON (CNS) --- Employees of the New York and Philadelphia archdioceses are accused of stealing $1 million each in church funds over the past decade. In New York, archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling said Jan. 30 that Anita Collins, who had worked for the archdiocese since 2003, allegedly stole about $1 million before she was fired Dec. 6. Collins used "a sophisticated fraud to manipulate the accounts payable system in the Department of Education Finance Office," Zwilling said. Collins was arraigned Jan. 30 on criminal charges of grand larceny and falsifying business records and ordered held on $750,000 bail. She faces a possible jail sentence of up to 25 years. In Philadelphia, Anita Guzzardi, who was named chief financial officer of the archdiocese July 1, was terminated from employment later in July when alleged "financial accounting irregularities" were discovered. Although an investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office was continuing, sources said the amount involved is nearly $1 million. No criminal charges have been filed against Guzzardi. Both archdioceses were said to be cooperating with the local investigations and reviewing their internal financial oversight procedures.
Vatican, Palestinian leaders continue talks on church rights, freedoms
VATICAN CITY (CNS) --- The Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization are continuing talks aimed at a formal agreement regulating and promoting the presence and activity of the Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories. Vatican and PLO representatives met Jan. 28 at the headquarters of the Palestinian president in Ramallah, according to a statement released at the Vatican Jan. 30. The talks in Ramallah were co-chaired by Msgr. Ettore Balestrero, the Vatican undersecretary for relations with states, and Ziad al-Bandak, the Palestinian presidential adviser for Christian relations. The Palestinian side gave the Vatican its response to a draft proposed earlier by the Vatican, the statement said. "The talks took place in a positive atmosphere to strengthen further the special relations between the two sides," it said. "The delegations agreed to set up technical teams to follow up on the draft" in preparation for a larger meeting that will be held at the Vatican "in the near future." Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, would not provide further details, but said the meeting was "a positive sign of good will."
Guatemalan church official calls arrest of dictator good precedent
SAN SALVADOR (CNS) --- The decision of a judge to order the arrest of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, is a good precedent to remove the impunity that has prevailed for years in the country, said the executive director of the human rights office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. "If you can get a conviction in the case of Rios Montt, that would be a historical precedent in a country where justice is not applied to people linked to the army," the director, Estuardo Paredes, told Catholic News Service. "If there is objectivity and no pressure, we expect a debate on what happened in Guatemala, and we expect a final conviction," Paredes said. In a preliminary hearing Jan. 26, prosecutors accused Rios Montt, former president and commander in chief of the army, of being responsible for and directing military operations against Mayan people during Guatemala's civil war. Rios Montt, 85, is under house arrest, and the public prosecutor's office has until March 17 to present more evidence to convince a judge to try the retired general. According to prosecutors, nearly 1,800 indigenous Guatemalans were massacred by the army, which considered them guerrilla collaborators. Rios Montt was allegedly in charge of these operations.
Confession: Celebration of mercy, not trial before prosecution
VATICAN CITY (CNS) --- Priests hearing confessions need to replace any negative or aggressive attitudes with meekness and mercy toward the penitent, said a Vatican expert on confession. The sacrament of reconciliation "has led to a unilateral overemphasis on the accusation and listing of sins," said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the sacrament of penance. The end result is that "the thing that is absolutely central when listening to sin, that is, the blessed embrace of the merciful Father, is put on the backburner," he said. The Italian bishop's comments, published Jan. 28 in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, were made in his address to a symposium for confessors held in Loreto, Italy. "Isn't it true perhaps that at times confession takes on the semblance of a prosecuting tribunal rather than a celebration of forgiveness," and that the conversation takes on "inquisitorial or, in any case, indelicate tones," he asked. A confessor is first and foremost a father who welcomes, listens and engages in dialogue, he said.
Late governor recalled for his calm leadership, strong Catholic faith
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CNS) --- Former Rhode Island Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy, who died Jan. 24 at age 81, was being remembered for his calm leadership and strong devotion to his Catholic faith and pro-life issues. Garrahy, who held office from 1977 to 1985, died at a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital, with Margherite, his wife of 55 and a half years, at his side, according to the couple's son John, who said his father succumbed to heart disease. A public viewing of the governor's body was held at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul Jan. 30. A funeral Mass was scheduled for Jan. 31 at the cathedral with Father Marcel L. Taillon as the main celebrant. The priest is pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic Parish in Narragansett, the Garrahys' home for most of the year. The couple had been spending part of each winter in Florida. "He had very strong faith and a very strong commitment to the church," John Garrahy said about his father in a Jan. 25 in an interview with Rhode Island Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Providence. John, a member of St. Augustine Parish in Providence and one of the governor and his wife's five children, said his father was a family man with a firm sense of optimism and Catholic values.