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Minn. dioceses say clergy abuse prevention efforts are working

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Pope Benedict in Malta
Pope Benedict XVI is surrounded by youths on the deck of a boat in the Valletta port, Malta, Sunday, April 18, 2010. Benedict met Sunday with a group of clerical abuse victims and promised them the Catholic Church would do everything in its power to punish abusive priests and protect young people in the future.

Pope Benedict's response to recent revelations about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has drawn a mixed reaction. 

Last week the Vatican declared that abuse allegations must be turned over to local law enforcement officials. And over the weekend, the pope had an emotional meeting in Malta with victims of sexual abuse by priests. 

Skeptics say the pope needs to hold church officials accountable for protecting pedophile clerics. The pope's supporters include many Minnesota Catholics, who say the church has made considerable progress over the last decade.

Headlines about the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church have been so prevalent in recent weeks that the Diocese of St. Cloud published a story about it in a recent newsletter. 

There have been no new cases of abuse recently reported in the diocese. But spokeswoman Rebecca Kurowski says the story was meant to remind parishioners that the diocese is on top of the issue. 

"It's a time for us to reassure our diocese we have everything in place to do all we can to make sure we're preventing any kind of abuse," she said.  

Kurowski pointed to the Charter to Protect Children and Young People, which was adopted by Catholic bishops in the United States in 2002. The charter requires training for everyone who works and volunteers for the diocese, and background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children, among other things. 

Kurowski says last week's Vatican edict to report abuse to law enforcement just reinforced what was already in place in St. Cloud. 

"That's been our protocol all along. Since Bishop Kinney has been here for sure," she said. "We absolutely turn everything over to the authorities, and they'll do their investigation." 

Diane Carr has been a practicing Catholic for more than 50 years. She's a parishioner in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where she received training in dealing with sexual abuse about six or seven years ago. 

Carr, who used to be a sexuality education trainer says, although the church was playing "catch up," it did a good job with the training.

"A lot of it was about having parents talk to their children about inappropriate touch, inappropriate actions by anybody, and being able to tell the parent about it," said Carr. "Another was the two adults at all times with children, regardless of who the adults are. That's the big message that I remember."  

Church officials in Minnesota say the proof of the effectiveness of their efforts is the lack of sexual abuse allegations in recent years. 

There are six dioceses in Minnesota. The Diocese of Crookston has had the only new case of clergy sex abuse reported since the Charter to Protect Children was adopted eight years ago. A priest from India is accused of assaulting a 14-year-old girl while assigned to a church in northern Minnesota six years ago. 

None of the other five dioceses have had new cases reported. In the Diocese of Winona, spokeswoman Rose Hammes says she doesn't think that's because people are reluctant to report cases. 

"I think the climate we live in makes it clear that cases should be reported. I think there haven't been any new cases because, No. 1, we've been very consistent that all candidates for priesthood and currently ordained priests follow the strict guidelines," Hammes said. "In general, we've become much more aware of how we need to be vigilant in keeping our children safe."

Critics of the Catholic Church says they're glad there's been some action to address clergy sex abuse, but they also say it's been a long time coming. Bob Schwiderski is the Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. 

"It took them 2,000 years to listen to those of us that have been harmed, in the need to learn from those that have been harmed, to protect the children of today and those yet to be born," said Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "If there is anything with the charter, it's at least they've looked in the right direction of child protection."

Schwiderski calls the charter a first step, and says more should be done to protect children from abuse and help those who've been victims.