In her address Marie Collins calls for stronger penalties for bishops and other Church leaders who cover up abuse

An Irish clerical abuse victim has told a gathering of bishops about her experiences at the hands of a hospital chaplain during an unprecedented Vatican conference on abuse.

Marie Collins, who was abused at the age of 13 by a hospital chaplain in Dublin, told an audience at the Gregorian University in Rome: “Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before were the next morning holding and offering me the Sacred Host. The hands that held the camera to photograph my exposed body, in the light of day were holding a prayer book when he came to hear my confession.”

Mrs Collins said “there must be acknowledgment and accountability for the harm and destruction that has been done to the life of victims”, calling for a strengthening of Church policies to avoid what she called the “deliberate cover-up and mishandling of cases”.

She was speaking during a four-day symposium attended by representatives of 110 bishops’ conferences and 30 religious orders, which included a penitential vigil to show contrition for the sexual abuse of children by priests and for the actions of Catholic officials who shielded the perpetrators from justice.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, presided over the vigil on Tuesday.

The conference, “Toward Healing and Renewal”, launched a global initiative aimed at improving efforts to stop clerical sexual abuse and better protect children and vulnerable adults.

The symposium was held at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and was supported by the Vatican Secretariat of State and several other Vatican offices.

During the penitential vigil, held in Rome’s St Ignatius church, a “very profound, clear and explicit” text was read, in the words of Jesuit Fr Hans Zollner, a licenced psychologist and psychotherapist and one of the symposium organisers.

Seven individuals from the Church who represent groups who have been “guilty or negligent” asked for forgiveness both from God and victims.

Mrs Collins said one of the reasons that abuse victims are still so hurt and angered is that, “despite apologies for the actions of the abusers, there have been few apologies for the protection given them by their superiors”.

She said: “There seems to be a lack of penalty for any of these men in leadership who deliberately or negligently covered up for abusers, allowing them to continue to abuse unhindered.”

She added that “we have had apologies, but forgiveness is a part of Christianity, a part of the Catholic Church” that is so important.

Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with priests accused of abuse, gave the symposium’s opening address, and Pope Benedict XVI delivered a message to be read to symposium participants. Among the other speakers were mental health professionals who have worked in the areas of prevention and treatment, and bishops from around the world, who talked about responses to the abuse crisis in their countries.

The conference was designed in part to help bishops’ conferences and superiors of religious orders respond to a 2011 circular letter from the doctrinal congregation requiring all dioceses in the world to develop guidelines on handling allegations of abuse.

After the conference, the Gregorian University and other institutions will launch an e-learning centre – the Centre for the Protection of Children – which will offer online resources in five languages.

The centre will be based in Munich and is designed to help Church leaders respond pastorally to the issue of sexual abuse in the Church and society as a whole. The centre has been funded for an initial three-year period and received significant funding directly from Pope Benedict through the Papal Foundation.