ROME, FEB. 13, 2012 ( Last week's conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Toward Healing and Renewal, confronted the crisis of clerical pedophilia with the objective of finding solutions whereby all future cases of child sex abuse would be prevented.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, associate dean for seminary and ministerial studies and a licensed psychologist, spoke with ZENIT last week during the conference about the concrete steps being taken to address the crisis, and offered some insights into the psychology of pedophilia.

Part I: A Psychologist Speaks on Prevention That Works

ZENIT: What is the most important thing that needs to be communicated by the media regarding the sexual abuse of minors?

Monsignor Rossetti: I think the biggest thing, I'd say, is that it's a terrible problem, but prevention does work. We've been involved in a much stronger prevention program in the States for a number of years, and the abuse cases are dropping, the number of cases are dropping significantly. Prevention does work, and I think that's important for people to realize. The most important thing about abuse is to stop it before it happens. And so, I'm just strongly encouraging people to start with these child safety programs and implement them.

ZENIT: What are some of the steps that are being taken to prevent abuse cases from happening?

Monsignor Rossetti: Several things. I think we're screening our priests better, I think we're forming them better in human formation, in human sexuality. But more importantly, you try to change the culture and the climate. The culture that we have, the climate that we have, when you change it, it does affect the amount of abuse that takes place. When abusers have free reign, when they're in a culture that tacitly allows this to happen, you're going to find a lot more abuse. But when you change the culture, which is what we're trying to do, so people are alert, they respond quickly, they can see red flags when they surface, then there's going to be much less abuse, and what does occur, we're going to respond to faster.

ZENIT: What aspects of the culture of today are affecting the frequency of these cases?

Monsignor Rossetti: There's a lot of things. One would be, parents being more careful about where their children go. Just because someone is in a position of authority, if he's a priest or a teacher, or a coach, doesn't mean the person's automatically trustworthy. And that, [in] organizations like ours, or the Boys Scouts or whatever, that whenever people are with youngsters there should be more than one adult present. They shouldn't be in your private living quarters. You shouldn't be going on vacations with other peoples' children, there's all sorts of boundary issues that parents and institutions can enforce. And then children themselves, when you create an environment where they feel more able to come forward, and to say something, then they're going to speak up.

There's usually a grooming period before an adult will molest a minor. During the grooming period, there are a bunch of red flags that surface. And so, when the red flags surface, the children can hopefully be more able to come forward and say something, or parents when they see this can intervene, and I've seen cases like that where adults are grooming children to be abused, and people intervened.

And when I say grooming: for example, you'll see an adult start taking a lot of photographs of children, sitting on their lap, wrestling with them, they're going on private vacations, they're alone with them, and so, a lot of just way too much inappropriate familiarity.

ZENIT: Would you say that sexual education would be helpful, then?

Monsignor Rossetti: Sexual education is always a good thing, when it's done properly of course. But it's more than that; you talk about these child safety programs where they're taught that there's certain kinds of "good touch, bad touch." That sort of thing. It's okay if someone shakes your hand, but there are places where people shouldn't touch. So those are very simple programs that are taught to children. So, making children aware that there are some things that are appropriate, some things that are not.

ZENIT: There can be the question of educating a young child about sexuality, and the danger of revealing too much information to the child. How do you find that balance?

Monsignor Rossetti: That is a challenge, and I think, of course, the first educators of children are their parents, and they are the ones who are the primary educators. But we in the Church have implemented these child safety programs, and the programs are tested by adults who work with children, and speak to them in ways that are appropriate for their age. So obviously, there are things you'll say to 5-year-olds or 10-year-olds that you'd say in a different way than you would to an adult. We need to be sensible, sensitive too.

But children today get so much bad sexual message from television and other places, it's good they get some good sexual messages from us.

Part II: A Psychologist Speaks on Screening Potential Seminarians

ZENIT: Regarding the culture as a whole, today's society has a certain confused sense of sexuality that's being promoted. Could this be a factor in the frequency of child molestation cases?

Monsignor Rossetti: I think maybe not directly, but certainly indirectly. Child abuse has always been going on, let me first say that. This is nothing new. Nevertheless, I think our culture's morality around sexuality has degraded significantly. There's a culture of voyeurism -- I mean, the pictures you see these days, even of minors, some pictures which are inappropriate for children to be seeing, let alone dressed like that and doing those things. And so, it doesn't help. I'm not suggesting we go back to some sort of prudishness, but there should be some respect for the human body, and some respect for human sexuality, and seeing it as a gift from God, and not as a commodity, not as something to entice people to buy something, not as something to sell movies. So, the messages that we're giving our society about sexuality are becoming increasingly distorted, and [are] creating an environment which certainly does not deter sexual deviants, and in some ways, is too permissive.

ZENIT: You had discussed in your talk the formation of priests. What are some of the concrete steps that are being taken to prevent men who are at risk of abusing children from entering the priesthood?

Monsignor Rossetti: Well, we're screening them better, first of all. I think the psychological screening that we implemented a couple decades ago is getting stronger. We still have a ways to go there, but it's getting better. And also, some screening directly in the area of psychosexual development. We have to do this sensitively, using a confidential setting with a clinical psychologist. But the psychologist confidentially inquires and discusses sexuality with these prospective seminarians, and tries to ascertain an appropriate level of psychosexual maturity -- whether that person is going to be able to live a chaste and celibate life, or a chaste life in general. And it works; not 100%, but I've seen success stories where candidates have revealed a very disturbed sexual background and they're applying for the priesthood. And I know a few cases of this. And of course they were turned away. But they clearly would have been dangerous people as priests. So while we can't screen out 100%, we are getting better.

ZENIT: Why would someone who is inclined to abuse children try to enter the seminary? Do some seek to enter with the objective of abusing children at some point down the road?

Monsignor Rossetti: In most cases, I don't think it's a conscious objective. I think they might have even some aspirations to do something spiritual and good, but not realizing that their sexuality is so distorted. Lots of these people really do not realize how distorted their sexuality is. It's something they live with, so sometimes they don't even know. That's what will happen in some of the interviews. You'll be speaking with a prospective candidate, and he'll be revealing things without realizing how distorted it is.

I'm not sure they go into it with the perspective of "I'm going to go and become a priest and molest minors." I don't think so.

And especially today, I think the message is out that the Catholic Church is no longer a safe place for child molesters. I think the message is on the street.

ZENIT: What does the Church do for a priest who has been found guilty of child molestation?

Monsignor Rossetti: Clearly in the United States, for example, there's a zero tolerance policy. Once it's been shown that you've sexually molested a minor, you'll never minister as a priest again. You're out.

The Dallas Charter -- what you'd call the charter for the protection of children and young people -- talks about putting them through some treatment, for their welfare as well as the welfare of children. You take these molesters, and put them through some psychological treatment that can help. It's not perfect, but it can help them get better. And this is one way of trying to prevent them from molesting in the future.

Another [factor] is if they remain under the Church's umbrella, even though they're not ministering as priests anymore, most places will supervise them, keep them away from minors. If they're completely laicized, then we lose any sort of supervision. They're just out.

And some are completely laicized, and others are what we call dismissed from the clerical state, and others remain under the Church's umbrella, but they are out of the priesthood and in supervised settings.

ZENIT: Could you speak about the importance of holding reconciliation events?

Monsignor Rossetti: You remember at the turn of the millennium, when John Paul II basically did a mea culpa for several sins of the Church. "We have sinned at times towards women, towards minorities, for the crusades, for the Inquisition." He [presents] certain ways in which the Church has sinned in the past, and asks for forgiveness. The Church expects people in the pews to go to confession, and the Church has the responsibility to do the same. Blessed John Paul was very courageous, and he got some grief for that. There were some people who thought it was too much. But our Holy Father knew better, so it is important for the Church to confess Her sins, if you will, and to ask for forgiveness.

And it's important for the victims. I've been to a bunch of these [evenings of reconciliation]. Bishop Loverde talked about how he does these regularly in the Diocese of Arlington, and how important they are. And one in Ireland, [with] Cardinal Sean O'Malley, that was another important moment. It's important for victims and it's also important for the Church.

ZENIT: What are some of the overall initiatives that you are hoping to see come from this conference?

Monsignor Rossetti: I would say to the ZENIT readers that there is hope, and I ended my talk on that. You see the culture changing. You see bishops responding more quickly and more aggressively. You see signs of hope and improvement. Is it 100% yet? No. But there's clearly a movement forward. And I have a lot of hope. As I said in my talk to the bishops: the Catholic Church is a large, 2,000-year organization which changes slowly. But, when it does start to change, when it puts its moral strength in institutional power behind something important, the Church's voice will not be stopped. And the Church is getting on board with preventing child abuse. And it will be, even more so in the future, a powerful voice for victims.