ROME – Pope Francis petitioned Catholics Sunday to pray for an upcoming anti-abuse summit at the Vatican, saying he wanted to call the gathering as a response to the “urgent” challenge of clerical sexual abuse.
“From Thursday to next Sunday, there will take place in the Vatican a meeting with the presidents of all bishops’ conferences on the topic of the protection of minors in the Church,” the pope said Feb. 17, and asked Catholic faithful to pray for the summit, which he said he called as “a strong act of pastoral responsibility faced with an urgent challenge in our time.”
The pontiff was speaking at his usual Sunday noontime Angelus address.
The appeal comes days ahead of a Feb. 21-24 summit addressing the global clerical abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and just a day after the Vatican announced that Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was dismissed from the clerical state on charges of sexual abuse and harassment.
Described by the pope as a pastoral meeting rather than a decision-making event, the summit will draw the participation of leading prelates, religious superiors and survivors.
Both Francis and several others involved with the summit have previously said expectations are too high, and that while it likely won’t result in sweeping changes, the goal is to at least get everyone on the same page.
However, many, including survivors of clerical abuse want action, and view McCarrick’s defrocking as just the beginning of a larger problem aimed at cracking down not just on clerical abuse but also those who cover it up.
In a Feb. 17 statement following the announcement of McCarrick’s dismissal from the clerical state, colloquially referred to as “laicization,” the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) advocacy group said many of the bishops who will attend the summit “likely have been covering up child sex crimes.”
“What use is zero tolerance for sex offenders if their bishops are allowed by the pope to cover up for them? If a bishop knows if he covers up for a sex offender that both he and the offender will be removed permanently from the priesthood, then zero tolerance will be a reality.”
“For years, several bishops and former popes knew or should have known that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was an abuser,” the statement read, adding that McCarrick’s defrocking is “long overdue,” but failing to target those that covered for him and advanced his career “only continues the cover-up.”
Without addressing cover-up, they said, Francis will essentially be sending a message to prelates that “there are no consequences for them” if they fail to enact due diligence.
“Only when a bishop knows he will be laicized for covering up sex crimes will he be compelled to act,” the group said.
Likewise, the advocacy and research group Bishop Accountability in a statement on the McCarrick announcement said Francis “has belatedly done the right thing” after facing enormous international pressure, however, “the defrocking of McCarrick should be just a first step.”
“The pope must prove to a grieving and skeptical people that this was not a ‘one and done.’ He immediately should laicize ex officio other bishops who are known abusers,” they said, and urged the pope to acknowledge what he knew about McCarrick and when.
They also pushed for a full investigation of the McCarrick affair, including a probe into Vatican officials themselves, and for “systematic changes” to be enforced consisting of sanctions for those who cover up, transparency and prosecution.
In a Sunday news conference near St. Peter’s Square shortly after the pope’s Angelus address, Ann Barrett Doyle, co-director for Bishop Accountability, was scheduled to be present alongside survivor Phil Saviano, who worked with the Boston Globe to expose clerical sex crimes in their 2002 expose, at a press briefing following Francis’s Angelus address.
According to a statement, the group intends to name five bishops who have been substantively accused of abuse, and they will call on Francis to address cover-up in the McCarrick case.
Bishop Accountability will be holding several briefings in the lead-up to the summit. ECA will also hold daily press conferences after the Vatican briefings at the Paul VI hotel, just a stone’s throw from the Vatican.