Church's credibility hangs in balance ahead of sex abuse summit

Pope Francis called for prayers ahead of an unprecedented summit designed to tackle sexual abuse in the priesthood, a persisting problem that has shaken the faith of Catholics globally and that Francis on Sunday called "the urgent challenge of our time."

Bishops summoned to Rome to help Francis chart way forward after decades of misconduct, coverups

Pope Francis, pictured in October, told pilgrims and other visitors Sunday in St. Peter's Square that the heads of episcopal conferences worldwide will discuss 'protection of minors in the church.' (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis called for prayers ahead of an unprecedented summit designed to tackle sexual abuse in the priesthood, a persisting problem that has shaken the faith of Catholics globally and that Francis on Sunday called "the urgent challenge of our time."

Francis has summoned bishops to Rome to help him chart a way forward after decades of abuse by priests and prelates and systematic coverups by their superiors.

He told pilgrims and other visitors Sunday in St. Peter's Square that beginning Thursday, the heads of episcopal conferences worldwide will discuss "protection of minors in the church."

"I ask prayers for this appointment, which I wanted as an act of strong pastoral responsibility in the face of an urgent challenge of our time," Francis said.

The four-day summit is scheduled to take place from Feb. 21-24, and comes on the heels of the Vatican defrocking former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

Holy See officials on Jan. 11 found McCarrick guilty of soliciting for sex while hearing confession and of sexual crimes against minors and adults. He is the first churchman who reached the rank of cardinal to be expelled from the priesthood due to sex abuse.

"I am absolutely convinced that our credibility in this area is at stake," said Father Federico Lombardi, who Francis has chosen to moderate the meeting.

"We have to get to the root of this problem and show our ability to undergo a cure as a church that proposes to be a teacher or it would be better for us to get into another line of work," he told reporters.

The gathering comes on the heels of the Vatican defrocking former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

Revelations in many countries of sexual abuse against children and a pattern of bishops hiding the crimes have alienated many Catholics. They also test the pontiff's ability to ensure the safety of children and to punish the abusers as well as any complicit superiors.

Victims demand accountability

Survivor advocates have demanded that Francis say what he and other top Vatican officials knew about sexual wrongdoing by McCarrick and other clergymen.

"You abuse a child, you have to be removed from the priesthood," said Peter Isely, founding member of the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse. "If you cover up for abusing a child, you have to be removed from the priesthood, and this is the only thing that is going to turn the corner on this global crisis."

Francis said the gathering would be a "catechesis," or teaching session, a statement that stunned victims of abuse and their advocates.

The Vatican announced Saturday that U.S. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, shown here in 2015, had been expelled from the priesthood for sexual abuse of minors and adults. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

"The fact ... that there is still awareness-raising that has to be done [among bishops] is a measure of what a low priority this has truly been for the Vatican," said Anne Barrett-Doyle of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group bishopaccountability.org.

"I hope he has the candour to admit that it's absolutely disgraceful that that's where we are today," said Barrett-Doyle, speaking Sunday in St. Peter's Square.

Veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi told the AP he also sees the pope facing resistance inside the church.

"There is a struggle going on between the pope and his supporters who want a change, and a lot of people among the bishops and among the clergy who don't want transparency and applying law and order in the abuse issue in the world," Politi said.

Some of Francis's critics contend that as a product of the Catholic Church's hierarchical culture, he, too, has been slow to recognize the hierarchy's role in perpetuating abuse by pedophile priests.

Francis has tried to temper expectations for the summit, saying in January the "problem of abuse will continue" because "it's a human problem." Isely said the bar should be high and the participants "have to deliver for survivors."

With files from Reuters