Pope Benedict XVI
© Franco Origlia/Getty ImagesPope Benedict XVI
A top Roman Catholic official opened a conference on protecting children from sexual abuse Monday by defending Pope Benedict XVI, arguing that he deserved thanks for his efforts.

Cardinal William Levada said Benedict, before becoming pope, enacted many of the reforms that followed the eruption of the church's sex-abuse scandal a decade ago.

"But the pope has had to suffer attacks by the media over these past years in various parts of the world, when he should receive the gratitude of us all, in the church and outside it," Levada said in his opening address to the conference.

Levada leads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office charged with enforcing church law. Benedict held the same post before he became pope in 2005.

During that period, the office was charged with cleaning up after the revelations that church officials protected priests who were accused of molesting young parishioners, particularly in the United States and Europe. The scandal has led to criminal charges and expensive legal judgments in cases that are still working their way through the courts.

This week's event at Gregorian University in Rome features the launch of a three-year program aimed at setting up "robust procedures" to handle allegations of abuse, according to organizers. But a U.S.-based victims' group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, dismissed the event as "window dressing" on Monday.

"Who will be leading the discussion? The very same 'experts' and church officials who bear responsibility for the continued global cover-up of clergy child sex crimes," the group said on its website. The group included Levada, the former archbishop of San Francisco, as one of those officials.

Levada said more than 4,000 cases of sexual abuse had been reported to his office in the past decade, revealing the need for "a truly multifaceted response." He reaffirmed that church leaders have "an obligation to cooperate with the requirements of civil law regarding the reporting of such crimes to the appropriate authorities," but added that the offenders "are a tiny minority of an otherwise faithful, committed clergy."