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  • Pope Francis is surrounded by bishops during the weekly general audience at Paul VI hall at the Vatican February 6, 2019.

    Pope Francis is surrounded by bishops during the weekly general audience at Paul VI hall at the Vatican February 6, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 13 February 2019

The Catholic church has had to contend with a wave of cases involving pedophile priests in countries worldwide from Ireland and the United States to Australia.

"So many children have been abused," sighs Vincent Moba, a Zambian Catholic priest who has just graduated from Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University with a diploma in safeguarding children.

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Moba, 47, has completed the five-month curriculum at the Center for the Protection of Minors to join a worldwide network of experts fighting sexual abuse at all levels of society.

Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, a German psychologist and psychotherapist abuse specialist, is in charge of the study programme, which has awarded diplomas to around 80 students, priests, nuns and lay people over the last four years.

On Wednesday, the latest group graduated from 13 countries including South Africa, Kenya, India and Thailand having completed studies in psychology, psychiatry, law, sociology and theology.

Six of them will this year enrol in a new Masters programme in safeguarding children.

Zollner is also one of the organizers of next week's Vatican global child abuse summit to discuss how to protect minors, called for by Pope Francis.

"What I have picked up here is massive, for me to share with our people," said Moba, slamming what he calls a "culture of denial" towards abuse in his country. "Some people think for example if I sleep with a minor I will be cured of HIV and AIDS, or become a rich person," he said. "These beliefs are destroying my culture," said the priest, who worked for 12 years in South Africa and has now been sent by his congregation to "participate in this crusade against sexual abuse in the Church."

Among this year's graduates, mainly from Asia and Africa, is Martina Vintrova, a Czech judge and lawyer specialized in canonical law.

She asked her bishop if she could come to follow the course at the Gregorian University, founded in the 16th century.

"I met victims of sexual abuse in the Church. They just started to come to me, maybe because I am a woman and a canonist at the same time. And I started to help them. I realized I would need a more complete education, because it is not easy work," she said. "In our country we are not aware of this problem. People, priests and even bishops don't believe it is such a big problem. I can see from my level it is a problem. We wait for our own scandal in the future, maybe."

The course will make it "easier to speak to victims," says the ardent Catholic. "I hope it will make me more sensitive: how to speak to them, choose the right words, what not to say and what to say... it is a challenge for us to do everything we can to stop this."

Zollner says it is "a combination of theory and practice," including for instance "in psychology we teach what may be signs of abuse that has happened, or that is about to happen."

"We know that in all parts of the world there have been cases of abuse. That is why we need to have experts on the ground, Africans who talk to Africans, Asians who talk to Asians. They have the language to talk about sexual misbehaviour, they know about the cultural differences." "We want to train people from countries and continents where there is very little expertise in safeguarding children," he added.

Zollner spends much of his time travelling around the world talking about abuse.

"It is changing: I have traveled to 60 countries on all continents over the last years with this topic. I've seen the change."

But there are still countries where dealing with abuse is problematic.

"In a Buddhist country like Myanmar or in a very Confucian society like South Korea talking about sexuality is still taboo — as much as it is in some parts of the Catholic Church," he said.

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