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ROME (Reuters) - Hiding behind a culture of "omerta" -- the Italian word for the Mafia's code of silence -- would be deadly for the Catholic Church, the Vatican's top official for dealing with sexual abuse of minors by clergy said Wednesday.
Monsignor Charles Scicluna made the unusually forthright comment in his speech to a landmark symposium in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the Church in the past decade.
"The teaching ... that truth is at the basis of justice explains why a deadly culture of silence, or 'omerta,' is in itself wrong and unjust," Scicluna said in his address to the four-day symposium which brings together some 200 people including bishops, leaders of religious orders, victims of abuse and psychologists.
Rarely, if ever, has a Vatican official used the word "omerta" - a serious accusation in Italian -- to compare the reluctance of some in the Church to come clean on the abuse scandal with the Mafia's code of silence.
"Other enemies of the truth are the deliberate denial of known facts and the misplaced concern that the good name of the institution should somehow enjoy absolute priority to the detriment of disclosure," Scicluna said.
Victims groups have for years accused some bishops in the Church of preferring silence and cover-up to coming clean on the scandal, which has sullied the image of the Church around the world, particularly in the United States.
"No strategy for the prevention of child abuse will ever work without commitment and accountability," Scicluna told the symposium at the Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University, called "Towards Healing and Renewal."
Scicluna, a Maltese whose formal title is "justice promoter" in the Vatican's doctrinal department, is the Vatican's point man for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
The symposium's participants are discussing how the Church can become more aware of the problem, make a commitment to listen to victims and prevent future cases of abuse.
Groups representing abuse victims say the Church must do much more to own up to the past, when known pedophile priests were shuttled from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or turned over to authorities.
It must also make greater efforts to prevent future cases, they say, accusing the Church and the Vatican of a cover-up.
The message from Scicluna and other Vatican officials who have addressed the symposium is that local Church officials must cooperate with civil authorities according to local law in cases of suspected pedophilia.
The scandals have led to costly legal action, are blamed for an exodus of believers in some European nations, including the pope's native Germany, and have damaged the Church's moral standing in hitherto staunchly Catholic states, such as Ireland.
An association for victims of abuse dismissed the conference as "window dressing" and said the Vatican should hand over documentation of abuse to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
"After years of promises, meetings and empty apologies, the Vatican cannot do the simplest, cheapest and most child-friendly action possible: make public decades of secret files on clergy sex offenders and enablers," said Joelle Casteix from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Tuesday, an Irish victim of clerical abuse bluntly told the symposium that guidelines on how to root out pedophile priests and protect children needed to be backed up by penalties for bishops who fail to implement them.
Marie Collins said rules without sanctions were too easily ignored and cases were often swept under the carpet, allowing pedophiles to carry on molesting children.
The Church in her native Ireland was one of the hardest hit by the sexual abuse scandal.
Last July, the Vatican took the highly unusual step of recalling its ambassador to Ireland after Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests.
The Irish parliament passed a motion deploring the Vatican's role in "undermining child protection frameworks" following publication of a damning report on the diocese of Cloyne.
The Cloyne report said Irish clerics concealed from the authorities the sexual abuse of children by priests as recently as 2009.
In November, Ireland closed its embassy to the Vatican, ostensibly for economic reasons.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Jon Boyle