Church officials urged to meet with sex abuse victims before critical Vatican summit

Organizers of an upcoming Vatican summit on sex abuse prevention warn that the credibility of the Catholic Church is in jeopardy over the abuse scandal, and urge participants to meet with victims personally before coming to Rome.

Pope Francis invited church leaders to Feb. 21-24 meet amid scandals in several countries

Pope Francis announced he was convening the summit in September, signalling awareness of the problem of clergy sex abuse. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Organizers of an upcoming Vatican summit on sex abuse prevention warn that the credibility of the Catholic Church is in jeopardy over the abuse scandal, and urge participants to meet with victims personally before coming to Rome.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the presidents of bishops' conferences worldwide, organizers said the church must develop a "comprehensive and communal response" to the crisis, and that the first step is "acknowledging the truth of what has happened."

Pope Francis invited the church leaders to the Feb. 21-24 summit to respond to what has become the gravest threat to his papacy, as the sex abuse and coverup scandal erupted in the U.S., Chile and elsewhere this year.

In revealing the first details of the preparations for the meeting, the Vatican said the summit would focus on three main areas: responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the church accountable.- Organizers of the Feb. 24-26 summit

"Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim survivors, but the very credibility of the church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world," the organizers wrote.

"Each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the church accountable," they said.

It was signed by the four members of the preparatory committee for the meeting: Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias, as well as the Vatican's leading abuse experts, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Rev. Hans Zollner.

They urged conference presidents to meet with victims before they come to Rome "to learn firsthand the suffering they have endured."

Trying to put 'victims first'

The appeal was clear evidence that throughout the church, many bishops continue to deny the scope of the problem and have never met with a victim.

Vatican spokesperson Greg Burke said doing so "is a concrete way of putting victims first and acknowledging the horror of what happened."

Francis announced he was convening the summit in September, signalling awareness at the top of the church that clergy sex abuse is a global problem and not restricted to some parts of the world or a few Western countries.

He did so as he worked to recover from his botched handling of the scandal in Chile, sparked earlier this year when he repeatedly discredited victims of a notorious Chilean predator priest and defended a bishop who had protected him.

Francis eventually admitted he was wrong, apologized to the victims and secured offers of resignation for every active bishop in the country. Francis took action after The Associated Press challenged him on the case and demonstrated that he had received victims' complaints.

Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick is shown in 2015. A limited probe into how McCarrick advanced through church ranks despite allegations that he slept with seminarians and young priests has been ordered, though Pope Francis hasn't addressed allegations that he himself knew of tne sexual misconduct allegations. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Francis' papacy was later jolted by accusations from a retired Vatican ambassador that the pope himself rehabilitated a now-disgraced American ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of molesting and harassing adult seminarians. Francis hasn't responded to the allegations, though he has ordered a limited investigation into them.

Expectations for the February summit, already high after a year of crisis, then took on greater import after the Vatican blocked U.S. bishops from taking action to impose new accountability measures on themselves at a meeting last month.

The Vatican never fully explained why it blocked the U.S. measures, part of the communications breakdowns that occasionally bedevil the Vatican.

The details of the February summit were announced on the same day the Vatican announced a shakeup in its communications operation.

Francis named veteran Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli as editorial director co-ordinating Vatican media. And he tapped Italian writer and professor Andrea Monda to head the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. Monda replaces Giovanni Maria Vian, a church historian and journalist who has headed the daily since 2007 and now becomes its emeritus editor.