MEXICO CITY – In what might have been a tepid Q&A session in the midst of a long day during a conference on abuse prevention in Mexico City, three questions instead heated things up in an overly air-conditioned room.

A priest standing at the back first generated some heat when he asked why the speakers weren’t focused on what he believes is the real cause of the clerical sexual abuse crisis: Homosexuality.

Bishop Luis Manuel Alí Herrera, an auxiliary of Bogota, Colombia, cited studies by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Australian Royal Commission which found no correlation between sex abuse and homosexuality. Instead, he said, there is a connection between abuse and moral laxity, “when clerics don’t consciously accept their commitment to celibacy.”

The prelate, a member of the pope’s commission for the protection of minors, also said the higher number of boys abused is due largely to accessibility.

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German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, director of the Center for Child Protection of Rome’s Gregorian University, agreed, saying that priests have more access to boys. However, he also noted that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently receiving cases from some 25 years ago, and the trend is changing, with a growing number of girls being abused.

Zollner, also a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, added that all the scientific data available demonstrates that the majority of the abuse cases between 1970-80 were committed by those ordained in the 1950s, clerics who had a very rigid formation with an emphasis on the rules. This rigidity imploded, he said, during the sexual revolution beginning in 1968.

Talking with investigators in the John Jay report six months ago, Zollner said, they confirmed that while abuses committed in the past 70 years were mostly against boys, that doesn’t make it a “homosexual” issue.

“The term they used was ‘opportunistic’,” Zollner said “They ‘grabbed’ what was available.”

Dissatisfied with those responses, the priest who asked the initial question said he didn’t agree with the answers.

Visibly annoyed, Zollner said simply and directly, “Homosexuality doesn’t cause abuse. On the other side, journalists say that celibacy causes abuse. No. It’s not automatic. We have to confront the issue of sex in the Church.”

Evidently trying to contain his anger, he added that male-on-male abuse “happens in prison, in the army, with people who are not homosexuals!”

The exchange took place on the second morning of a Nov. 6-8 conference on the protection of minors in Latin America, being organized by the Center for Child Protection of Mexico’s Pontifical University (CEPROME).

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Next, a man asked about false accusations, drawing gasps when he asserted that when one woman accuses another of something it’s often because women are mean to each other.

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna said there’s a canonical system for dealing with false accusations.

“We have antibodies against false denunciations,” he said. “Whoever is the victim of a calumny also has the right to demand compensation for the damages. False accusation is also a crime [under canon law].”

“There has to be justice, always,” he said. “Only the truth is the key to freedom.”

It was noted later during the congress that 90 percent of allegations to date have been shown to be true.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of clerical sexual abuse, said that many times bishops, due to clericalism, don’t believe survivors.

“My abuser, [former priest Fernando] Karadima, was considered the future saint of Chile, people kept his things as relics,” Cruz said. “How do we fight against this? But we have to support the victims, be empathic.”

Answering a third pointed question about economic compensation to abuse survivors, Scicluna said there is also a canonical provision for it.

When it comes to quantifying damages, Church law defers to civil law in the country where the crime was committed. Though there is no universal criterion, canon 128 stipulates that whoever causes damage has to repair it.

“Whoever breaks it, pays for it,” Scicluna said.

“It has to be a quantification that is fair to the cultural and legal context of the country,” he said, and determined by a certified civil expert.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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