ROME – Reformers marched Tuesday on St. Peter’s Square to demand that the Vatican begin discussions on letting women join the priesthood and to criticize the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of the cleric abuse scandal.

Representatives of a half-dozen Catholic reform groups demonstrated on the eve of a three-day Vatican rally marking the end of the church’s yearlong celebration of the priest. Vatican officials and news reports have said the during the rally Pope Benedict XVI may apologize for the decades of rapes and molestation that children suffered at the hands of priests worldwide.

The umbrella group Women’s Ordination Conference said the Vatican shouldn’t be celebrating the priesthood while “turning a blind eye when men in its ranks destroy the lives of children and families.”

“While the hierarchy spends their time covering up scandals and throwing major celebrations for themselves, Catholic women are working for justice and making a positive difference in the world,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.

She spoke at a news conference before a dozen or so advocates marched to the Vatican in a bid to hand out fliers to tourists and other passers-by. Police stopped them when they reached the square and asked them to leave, which they did.

Among the protesters were two women who have been excommunicated for being ordained Catholic priests, as well as a representatives from We are Church, a Catholic reform group founded after a clerical abuse scandal in Austria involving the late archbishop of Vienna.

“The worldwide shocking disclosures of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and its concealment for decades clearly shows the scandalous aberration that can be caused by a supervalued male priesthood with forced celibacy,” said the group’s Angelica Fromm.

Austria has become a hotbed for the church reform movement, in part because Vienna’s current archbishop, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has called for an honest examination of issues like celibacy for priests.

Schoenborn replaced the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer in 1995, the year allegations emerged that Groer had molested youths in the 1970s.

Also in Rome ahead of the priest rally were representatives of the main U.S. clerical abuse victims group, Survivors Network for Those Abused Priests. They demanded Pope Benedict XVI use the priest meeting to issue an apology and a zero-tolerance policy to keep abusive priests away from children.

They also demanded an immediate halt to the speeded-up beatification process for Pope John Paul II pending an investigation into his knowledge of cover-ups of clerical abuse.

Among the most egregious cases of Vatican inaction and alleged complicity in abuse by priests involves the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, who was held in esteem by John Paul for his ability to attract vocations.

Last month, the Vatican said it was taking over the order after determining that Maciel had led a double life that allowed him to abuse young boys unchecked.

The Vatican has admitted no wrongdoing, however.


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