WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The Catholic Church in New Zealand said Saturday it knew of 38 cases of sexual abuse by church officers in the past 50 years and offered victims an "unreserved" apology.
In the Catholic Church's first admission of widespread sexual abuse by church officers in New Zealand, officials said the cases included complaints against priests and lay members in positions of authority. The abuse was perpetrated against children and teen-agers, as well as adults receiving care from the church.
The acknowledgment and apology comes amid a crisis that has deeply shaken the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, with revelations that priests sexually abused children and senior clergy tried to conceal incidents by moving known offenders to other parishes.
In an open apology, Father Tim Duckworth of the Society of Mary, New Zealand's largest order of priests, said the church's former policy of moving known offenders to other parishes or schools, rather than removing them from their duties, was a mistake.
"I unreservedly apologize on behalf of brother priests and religious (members of the church community) for the hurt that has been done by some few of our number," he said in a statement.
"With the benefit of hindsight, we find it hard to understand why we sometimes made decisions such as the geographical cure. I do not believe moving an offender helped anyone," he said.
Catholic communications director Lyndsay Freer said the repeat nature of offenders was not understood in the past, and a change in attitude had now occurred.
"The church ... has come to understand the need for openness and transparency," she said.
Under new church policies, any known pedophiles will be removed from their duties and victims will be strongly recommended to take criminal complaints to the police.
However, Brent Cherry, a sex abuse counselor who has dealt with victims of priests, doesn't believe the church is taking the abuse cases seriously enough.
"These people have wrecked lives. It sounds horrible to say, but they are some of the worst offenders," Cherry said, adding more cases should be directly referred to the police by the church.
New Zealand church leaders also said they would halt a practice of using confidentiality clauses to gag victims who reached financial payout settlements with the church.
They said the new "openness policy" will allow victims to speak out publicly about their abuse at the hands of church members.