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Priest gathering overshadowed by church sex abuse scandal

By Paula Newton, CNN
Thousands of priests are gathered in Rome for a conference to mark the end of the "Year of the Priest."
Thousands of priests are gathered in Rome for a conference to mark the end of the "Year of the Priest."
  • Some priests say gathering comes at opportune time
  • Victims demand Pope issue apology
  • Thousands say they were abused by Catholic clergy
  • Campaigners demand priesthood reform

Rome, Italy (CNN) -- For a second day Thursday, thousands of priests from around the world are gathered in Rome for a conference to mark the end of the "Year of the Priest."

But even in song and prayer, these priests cannot deny the utter sadness that has consumed their vocation this year. Accusations that the Catholic Church has covered up the criminal misdeeds of some priests have shocked the faithful.

So, say some attendees, the conference comes at an opportune time.

"It allows people who perhaps are reflecting on the negative things that some priests have done, it allows them to be reading and listening to some of the positive things that the priesthood has done over 2000 years," said the Rev. James Deiters of the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois.

But some victims of sexual abuse are here too -- demanding that Pope Benedict XVI use the end of this gathering to issue a blunt and categorical apology to victims.

"We have carried around guilt and shame our entire lives and we have carried the responsibility of perpetrator priests, bishops who cover up for them, cardinals who cover up for them, and of popes who cover up for them and that is no longer a burden we are willing to bear," said Joelle Casteix of the U.S.-based Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP.

Thousands of people have come forward in the United States, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria and the pope's native Germany saying they were abused as children by Catholic clergy.

The crisis has particularly shocked deeply Catholic Ireland, where three government-backed investigations have uncovered physical and sexual abuse stretching back decades.

Critics charge that the Vatican systematically covered up abuse around the world by shuffling abusive priests from one parish to another or quietly pushing them to retire.

The pope has met with victims in the United States and Malta, and vowed that the church will seek justice for the victims.

But some victims say it's not enough; the priesthood must be reformed.

On Tuesday, activists campaigned for the Catholic Church to ordain women. They argued that women in the priesthood could have helped lessen the impact of the child abuse scandal sweeping the church.

"We believe that if women had a say in the church, if there was more accountability and more transparency, that the men would have been held more accountable," said Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the U.S.-based Women's Ordination Conference.

The half-dozen campaigners had unfurled a banner and were handing out leaflets when Vatican police asked them to leave.

And so it goes. Under scrutiny as never before, the priests gathered here this week came to rejuvenate their faith and vocation -- but they have been forced to defend it too.