Hundreds of Catholic leaders have arrived in Rome for a summit on child sex abuse, a meeting that the reforming papacy of Pope Francis hopes will decisively deal with a global scandal that has created the most severe crisis in the modern history of the church.
Pope Francis has come under huge pressure to show that the Vatican is capable of dealing with revelations of horrific abuse and allegations of cover-ups.
The four-day “protection of minors in the Church” gathering that begins on Thursday, which will be attended by 190 Catholic leaders, is aimed at ensuring bishops know how to prevent abuse and deal with allegations against the clergy.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, one of the four members of the committee that prepared the summit, said bishops “are going to be held accountable”, and that the summit would provide “concrete steps” on how to prevent abuse.
“The holy father wants to make very clear to bishops around the world, not only those participating, that each one has to claim responsibility and ownership for this problem,” he said. “There is going to be every effort to close whatever loopholes there are.”
Fallout from multiple cases of abuse continue to reverberate around the Catholic world. This month Pope Francis publicly acknowledged for the first time that priests and bishops had sexually abused nuns. Last week he defrocked Theodore McCarrick, the 88-year-old former archbishop of Washington, DC for molesting adults and children, making him the most senior church figure to be expelled for abuse. The pope last year apologised to Catholics after a US grand jury found that more than 1,000 children in Pennsylvania had been abused by more than 300 priests.
On the eve of the summit Archbishop Eamon Martin, leader of the Catholic church in Ireland, said he was “truly sorry” to victims. “There were too many failures to listen, to understand, and to do what was right and just,” he said.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who last year was picked by Pope Francis to lead an investigation into abuse in Chile, spoke of a “code of silence” that had to be broken in the Church, as said the summit would tackle “any complicity with denial”.
“The first immediate response is almost to deny what has happened. So denial is a natural response but it is not sufficient. It is a primitive mechanism, we need to move away from it,” he said.
Others have called for clearer definitions of what constitutes abuse and for a ‘zero tolerance’ of abuse. Marie Collins, a victim of abuse, was appointed by Pope Francis to consider the protection of minors but resigned after saying the Vatican was proving resistant to reform. A lack of clear definitions on abuse have meant abuse cases have been treated differently around the world, she has said.
“At the moment the vagueness of the canon law in regard to abuse often leads to canon law trials unable to bring in a guilty verdict in cases where most people would see clearly sexual abuse has occurred,” she wrote in a submission to the organisers ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
The summit takes place amid tensions between Pope Francis and conservative Catholics who have staged a backlash against his liberal and reformist agenda.
On Wednesday two conservative cardinals, Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller, wrote an open letter to Pope Francis ahead blaming “the plague of the homosexual agenda [that] has been spread within the Church” for the abuse crisis.
“Sexual abuse is blamed on clericalism. But the first and primary fault of the clergy does not rest in the abuse of power but in having gone away from the truth of the Gospel,” they wrote.
Federico Lombardi, who Pope Francis has chosen to moderate the summit, said the meeting would be decisive in proving the Church could show it could tackle the issue of child abuse. “I am absolutely convinced that our credibility in this area is at stake,” he said.