VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world met in a rare gathering at the Vatican on Friday to discuss religious freedom, sexual abuse of children by priests and accepting converts from the Anglican church.
The debate on religious freedom unfolded against the backdrop of a fresh Vatican conflict with China’s communist government over the ordination of a bishop without papal permission.
The closed-door meetings were taking place on the eve of a ceremony known as a consistory at which the pope will create 24 new cardinals, including 20 who are under 80 and thus eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect his successor.
The topic of religious liberty came to the fore on Thursday when the Vatican warned China not to force bishops loyal to the pope to attend the ordination of a bishop who is a member of the state-backed church that does not recognize the pontiff.
Prelates coming out of the morning session expressed concern that the new stand-off with Beijing would lead to a worsening of relations after a period of relative improvement.
Catholics in China are divided between one Church that recognizes the pope and his authority to name bishops and a state-backed “patriotic association” which names its own bishops.
In the past few months, the Vatican has also been stepping up its calls for religious freedom for Christians in predominantly Muslim countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The existing cardinals and cardinals-elect will also hear reports about the sexual abuse scandal which has rocked the Church in a number of countries.
Victims of sexual abuse were protesting in Rome to coincide with the meeting. They say the Vatican has not done enough to protect children from future abuse by priests.
“We want the bishops to turn over to police and prosecutors the personnel files of proven, admitted and credibly accused child-molesting clerics,” said Barbara Blaine, a leader of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
“The only way that we can make sure that the children that we all know and the children who attend mass everyday are safe is if the church stops fighting and starts cooperating like every other organization would and should,” SNAP member and abuse victim Lucy Duckworth told a news conference.
English Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor disagreed, saying the church was “doing everything it can” to make sure that children are safe and put the “terrible shame” behind it.
“The pope has expressed his abhorrence at the terrible crime and I am quite sure the church will, in every way, show that what has happened in the past will not happen in the future,” he told reporters at the Vatican..
The Vatican meeting was also assessing difficult relations with Anglicans.
On Friday the Catholic Church in England was to announce that five Anglican bishops opposed to the ordination of women bishops will take up an offer by the pope to convert to Catholicism while being allowed to keep some Anglican traditions.
Additional reporting by Antonio Denti, Gabriele Pileri and Cristiano Corvino; Editing by Jon Boyle