Switzerland’s Catholic bishops have admitted they “underestimated” the scale of sexual abuse within churches and have called on victims to report crimes to the police.
The Roman Catholic Church is facing one of its gravest crises in decades as a sexual abuse scandal sweeps Europe. In Switzerland, church leaders say about 60 people have reported to be victims of abuse by priests.
"We have underestimated the scale of the situation. The heads of dioceses and religious orders made mistakes – we ask forgiveness for these,” the Swiss Bishops Conference declared in an official statement on Wednesday.
The highest Catholic body in Switzerland “encouraged people who had suffered abuse to contact victim consultation centres ...and where possible, to file complaints with the police”.
It urged those responsible for the abuse to “assume their errors” and to turn themselves in to the relevant authorities.
"Members of the Bishops’ Conference are ashamed and deeply concerned by the sexual abuse cases carried out within the Church,” Norbert Brunner, president of the Swiss Bishops Conference, told journalists in Bern.
The body says there have been around 60 alleged victims of abuse by Catholic priests in Switzerland in the last 15 years.
In an article in Wednesday‘s Berner Zeitung, the vicar-general of the Basel diocese partly blamed the sexualisation of society for the recent scandal.
Society suffers from people being turned into sexual objects and the media “hides this reality”, said Roland-Berhard Trauffer, adding that thousands of cases of sexual abuse take place “especially in family environments”.
Jacques Neirynck, a Christian Democrat Parliamentarian and a Catholic, said the problem was less the fact there were paedophiles among the Swiss clergy.
“The real scandal is that these cases were hidden by the bishops,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Claude Ducarroz, a Catholic priest from Fribourg, told Swiss national radio he was surprised by the bishops' frank statement and transparent new approach.
He said the Church had believed it could “bury” the scandals and priests had benefited from a sort of immunity, but it was now “paying the price”.
Amid the growing scandal in Switzerland, attention has focused on the idea of setting up a central register of paedophile priests to prevent them from having further contact with children.
President Doris Leuthard last week publicly supported the idea.
“Whether perpetrators come from the civil or clerical world makes no difference. Both are subject to Swiss criminal law, with no ifs or buts,” Leuthard told the SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche newspapers.
She said it was important to ensure that paedophiles had no further contact with children and the possibility of a register for paedophile priests should be considered, on the lines of one for teachers.
Brunner said on Wednesday the body would look at this issue during its June plenary meeting.
But he remained sceptical: “We shouldn’t forget that the effectiveness of such an instrument is controversial both within the church as well as in public institutions.”
In June Swiss bishops will also re-examine their sexual abuse guidelines, in particular the systematic denunciation of abusers to the justice system – which is currently not taking place.
The Catholic Church is reportedly set to counter the negative publicity from the sex abuse scandal with an advertising campaign in each of the country’s 2,000 parishes.
A survey found an overwhelming majority of respondents coming out in favour of blacklisting paedophile priests.
Nine out of ten people taking part in the survey also want the church to report cases of sexual abuse by priests to the justice authorities. About 41 per cent of Swiss residents are Catholics.
Refuse to be intimidated
The Vatican is meanwhile refusing to be intimidated by abuse critics.
In a Palm Sunday service at the start of Holy Week events, Pope Benedict XVI did not directly mention the scandal but said faith in God helps lead one "towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion".
On March 20 the pope apologised for sex abuse by clergy in Ireland and ordered an investigation.
In a letter addressed to the people, bishops, priests and victims of child sex abuse in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, the pope did not make specific reference to churches in other countries, particularly the pope's native Germany.
The pope also avoided placing responsibility for the scandal on the shoulders of the Vatican.
Vatican child abuse statistics
The Holy See's official prosecutor says the Vatican's disciplinary office had dealt with 3,000 cases of sexual misconduct since 2001, covering "crimes" committed over the last 50 years.
About 300 of these involved "paedophilia in the true sense of the term" meaning abuse based on attraction to prepubescent children. About 60 per cent of the cases concerned adolescents and the rest involved heterosexual relations.
A full trial had been completed for 20 per cent of the cases and only 10 per cent had resulted in the pope dismissing the offender from the priesthood.