ROME – According to Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, bishops and others in positions of leadership within the Catholic Church must never grow complacent when it comes to preventing clerical sexual abuse.

“We must confront the truth and act to bring healing and justice to those who have been robbed of both,” he said on Thursday, during a conference on safeguarding organized in Rome. “The Church stands as a sign of God’s surpassing love. A love we Christians find in the person of Jesus.”

Looking into the face of abuse victims, the prelate said, “we look into the face of Jesus.” And when bishops look at themselves in the mirror as shepherds, he continued, “we must also see the face of Jesus, the good shepherd, whom we are called to bring to this moment.”

Taking the time to address survivors who’ve come forward with allegations of sexual crimes committed by priests, Cupich said that the Catholic Church “humbly” owes to each one of them and their families “our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children. As a Church, and especially as bishops charged by Christ himself to guard the flock, we have to keep this promise. We must never, we must never abandon victim survivors; we must never grow complacent.”

Cupich was picked by the pontiff to be one of the organizers of a 2019 Vatican summit on abuse prevention that led to new legislation to combat abuse in the Church.

The prelate, considered to be among the closest advisers of Pope Francis within the Church in the United States, was talking at the annual International Safeguarding Conference (ISC), which brings together Church leaders, safeguarding professionals, and trauma specialists.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 conference was a hybrid event consisting on several online presentations, capped with a June 30-July 2 event held in Rome, broadcast from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

The ISC organizing committee includes Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the institute for child protection of the Gregorian; Tina Campbell, who works on abuse prevention with the Society of Jesus; Andrew Azzopardi, head of the safeguarding commission of Malta; and Simon Davies, who heads the professional standards of the Jesuits in Australia.

According to Zollner, 134 people from 30 countries took part in the conference.

“Our goal as International Safeguarding Conference is primarily that we can share best practices so that we implement something that for the Catholic Church surprisingly, seems to be very difficult: Bring together people from different parts of the world, cultures and languages, to share what they find most helpful in their world when it comes to safeguarding,” said the priest, who is also a member of Francis’s commission for the protection of minors.

During his presentation, Cupich said faith leaders have a singular role in the prevention of abuse.

“We are aware of this fact because we know that children would have been kept safe if those in places of responsibility had done their job as shepherds called to protect the flock,” he said. “There’s no getting around it: if we want children to be safe, bishops and those in places of responsibility have to step up.”

The prelate spoke at length about his own personal experience with abuse victims, focusing particularly on a “successful, middle-age” man who came to him 20 years ago to share that the priest in his boyhood parish had sexually abused him every Sunday, only to then share dinner with the boy’s family. The man was nine when the abuse began.

The abusive priest, who was removed from the parish when the man came forward, “leveraged the trust” the boy’s family had deposited in him “to have control over this boy, and that’s what was so very diabolical of what he did: He not only manipulated the child but his family as well.”

“It was a moment of great pain, but that victim survivor’s courage forced me to be an adult in a way that I had never experienced,” Cupich said. “That encounter convinced me that there should be no place in the church for leaders who abuse power or expect privilege or protection because of their status.”

The prelate also spoke about Chicago’s safeguarding protocols, enforced by late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who created a victims assistance ministry in 1992. Cupich told attendees that “we would do well to remember” that when his predecessor “broke ground” by implementing safeguarding protocols he “was accused of misconduct himself.”

Bernardin “submitted himself to the archdiocesan review process, reached out to his accuser after he had recanted, prayed with the dying young man, and offered pastoral care and reconciliation. His example speaks powerfully today.”

Speaking about the 2002 Dallas Charter adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cupich said it reinforced what the Archdiocese of Chicago had been doing for over a decade by requiring every diocese in the United States to “promote healing and reconciliation of victim survivors and their families,” as well as a “prompt and effective response to abuse allegations, cooperate with civil authorities, discipline offenders, provide a safe environment for children and young people through training and screening, and also provide means of accountability through an annual audit of the implementation of the charter’s requirements.”

“We bishops must address forthrightly the degree to which we have kept the promises made in 2002 with the adoption of the charter,” he said. “Bottom line is this: The charter works if we actually implement it.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma