Pope Francis is hosting a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up.
The meeting opening Thursday comes at a critical time for the church and Francis’ papacy, following the explosion of the scandal in Chile last year and renewed outrage in the United States over decades of cover-up that were exposed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
Here is a look at what’s in store for the summit.
WHAT’S ON THE AGENDA?
The meeting is divided into three thematic days, with the final day — Sunday — devoted to Mass and a concluding address from the pope.
Day 1 explores bishops’ responsibilities to their flocks, including their legal responsibility to investigate and prevent abuse.
Day 2 is dedicated to accountability and is focused on church leaders working together, along with rank-and-file Catholics, to protect children.
Day 3 focuses on transparency, and features remarks from a Nigerian religious sister, a German cardinal and a Mexican journalist.
Testimony from survivors is interspersed throughout during moments of prayer, but there are no sessions dedicated to hearing their stories. Participants were told to meet with victims before coming to Rome to learn first-hand of their pain — and to drive home the idea that clergy sex abuse isn’t confined to certain parts of the world.
WHO IS COMING?
About 114 presidents of bishops conferences are expected, though at least two — Chilean Archbishop Santiago Silva and Costa Rican Archbishop Jose Rafael Quiros — are sending deputies because they themselves are implicated in covering up abuse.
The guest list includes 14 leaders from eastern rite churches, 12 religious superiors of men’s orders and 10 from women’s religious orders. About a dozen Vatican prefects, as well as a half-dozen of the pope’s cardinal advisers and a handful of others, round out the 190 participants.
Organizer the Rev. Hans Zollner acknowledged the relative lack of women represented — and how crucial they are to the church’s efforts to prevent abuse around the globe. “It is true that women, especially religious women, especially in Africa and Asia, are of utmost importance for safeguarding,” he said.
WHAT ARE THE EXPECTED OUTCOMES?
Zollner has said he hopes the summit will result in the creation of task forces on each continent to help national bishops’ conferences develop guidelines to fight abuse and tend to victims.
The Vatican in 2011 told these conferences to draft such guidelines, but to date only about half have adopted policies that have been approved by the Holy See. Not even Vatican City has a policy on the books.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican sex crimes investigator, stressed that follow-up for the meeting would be key, mentioning “audits” of conferences to check their progress.
WILL GAY PRIESTS AND SEXUAL ABUSE OF ADULTS BE DISCUSSED?
The scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked last week after being convicted by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians, exposed both the issue of homosexuality among Catholic leaders and the sexual abuse of adults under their authority. Francis’ recent comments about the sexual abuse of nuns also made clear that minors aren’t the only victims of predator priests.
Neither is on the summit agenda, however.
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the summit organizers, said the sexual abuse of adults needs to be addressed. But he said the four-day summit must remain focused on its original intent.
“Young people, minors don’t have a voice. They are kept in silence,” he said. “This is about making sure their voice is heard.”
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