VATICAN CITY - The Vatican's top anti-abuse prosecutor has warned that the Catholic Church in Asia is falling behind in the fight against pedophilia due to cultural differences over what constitutes child abuse.
"The problem is very accentuated in Asia," Archbishop Charles Scicluna told reporters ahead of a major international conference this week in the Vatican's Gregorian University on the crisis of pedophilia in the Church.
Scicluna, who addressed an unprecedented closed-door meeting on the issue with Asian Church leaders in Bangkok in November last year, added: "There is an awareness that there is abuse and something needs to be done."
The Vatican has asked national bishops' conferences from around the world to submit by May their guidelines on how to deal with abusive priests and cooperate with local law enforcement in an effort to root out abuse.
"There are some who will miss the deadline but they'll get there in the end," said Scicluna, who as "promoter of justice" for the Vatican is charged with looking into the thousands of cases of abuse by clergy.
"In some cultures, it's hard for victims to come forward. We are debating how to change a culture that favors silence over denunciation," he said.
Thousands of clergy abuse scandals in Europe and the United States have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years, revealing a culture of cover-up dating back decades that Church leaders say they now want to eradicate.
Far fewer cases of child abuse have come to light in other parts of the world such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, where public scandals involving financial corruption or affairs by priests with women have been more common.
One exception has been the Philippines, where the Church has apologized for abuses committed by priests over a period of 20 years and clergymen have been defrocked, although few if any have been brought to justice.
The newly-appointed Archbishop Chito Tagle of Manila, a rising star in the Catholic hierarchy, is expected to address the Vatican conference on Thursday about the particular challenges of dealing with the issue in Asia.
A pre-conference press statement said his speech would show "that sexual abuse inside and outside the Church is a global reality, not focused simply in the United States and Europe.
"Careful consideration needs to be given to the cultural values that can foster greater transparency and cooperation as a universal church that protects the most vulnerable," it said.
The meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) in November, entitled "The Impact of Paedophilia: Crisis in the Church in Asia", warned that abuse "has already become a considerably serious problem in Asia".
"Let us not be complacent that pedophilia is a problem of the West or the other continents of the world. It is equally prevalent in many countries in Asia," organizers said, calling for "drastic and immediate measures."
The FABC warned the problem was particularly urgent because many men and women of the clergy "are not aware of what in reality is pedophilia."
Father Hans Zollner, one of the organizers of the Vatican conference, said an important challenge for the Church was how to apply on a global level its experience in dealing with child abuse cases in Western countries.
"The question is how we can pass on what we have learned... and how this can be brought to other continents that don't have a minimum attention to child protection. Not a minimum," said the German Jesuit.
"Talk about Africa, talk about India, talk about other Asian countries, talk about some Latin American countries," he added.
Zollner, a psychotherapist, is leading a new Catholic Centre for Child Protection which is being launched at the conference and will have partners in Argentina, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy and Kenya.
"What in the North American context may seem already a transgression of limits, in the Philippines is absolutely normal: touching, embracing, kissing," he said.
"Our problem is that within the Church we are always very used to a European-Western view and so in other parts of the world they don't understand what 'these Westerners' are talking about.
And so we lose the chance of transmitting the message."