Pope summons senior bishops for summit on clerical sexual abuse

Pope Francis is summoning his senior bishops to Rome for a summit on the clerical sexual abuse crisis that is engulfing the Catholic church and his papacy.

Meeting of bishops’ conference presidents in February will seek to address global scandal

Pope Francis

Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Rory Carroll and agencies

@rorycarroll72

Pope Francis’s key cardinal advisers announced the summit on Wednesday.

Pope Francis is summoning his senior bishops to Rome for a summit on the clerical sexual abuse crisis that is engulfing the Catholic church and his papacy.

Vatican officials announced on Wednesday that the pope had asked the presidents of every bishops’ conference to attend a four-day meeting in February.

The announcement of the summit, believed to be the first of its kind, came a day before Francis was due to meet US church leaders to discuss new revelations and claims of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the US, a scandal that has widened to encompass Francis himself.

The Vatican said the gathering of more than 100 bishops would take place on 21-24 February and would focus on “the protection of minors”.

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The pope’s allies feel his leadership and legacy also need protection amid accusations that he protected abusers and from a civil war brewing between Vatican traditionalists and reformers.

Decades of abuse and cover-ups by the Irish church dogged the pope’s visit to Ireland last month, resulting in public rebukes, smaller-than-expected crowds and repeated papal apologies and pleas for forgiveness.

Mark Vincent Healy, a survivor of sexual abuse who met Francis in Dublin, said the “kick in the pants” appeared to have focused the Vatican’s attention on a crisis spanning the global church, but he questioned whether the summit would effect meaningful change. “It’s always too little, too late. He’s basically having to save his own bacon,” he said.

The pope triggered a firestorm in January when he discredited victims of a notorious Chilean priest. He later admitted “grave errors in judgment” and overhauled the hierarchy of the Chilean church.

Francis’s credibility took another hit last month when a retired Vatican ambassador accused him of sheltering Theodore McCarrick, a senior US cardinal, from punishment for molesting and harassing seminarians.

The Vatican has not officially responded to the accusations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a conservative foe of Francis.

Viganò shattered pontifical protocol last month by publishing an 11-page letter claiming Francis had covered up for a corrupt man and should step down. “In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal church, he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example to cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them,” he wrote.

The letter is expected to be discussed on Thursday when Francis meets the US church delegation. It will be headed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

DiNardo has expressed support for a wide-ranging Vatican investigation into McCarrick, who was removed as cardinal in July after an accusation that he groped a teenager. McCarrick maintains his innocence.

Francis’s top adviser on issues of sexual abuse, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, is due to attend Thursday’s meeting.

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Even before the McCarrick story broke, the US church leadership was under fire over revelations in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 children since the 1940s and that a string of bishops in six dioceses covered up for them, including the current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

Prosecutors in half a dozen US states have announced plans for similar investigations.

The church in Germany is also facing renewed scrutiny. On Wednesday, German media reported that a church-commissioned study on abuse in the German church detailed 3,677 cases of abuse between 1946 and 2014, mostly affecting boys. One in six cases involved rape and at least 1,670 clergy were involved, according to Spiegel Online and Die Zeit, citing a report due to be released on 25 September.

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