Alarmed by sexual abuse scandals across the globe, Pope Francis has summoned the heads of every bishops conference in the world to a February summit to discuss abuse by Roman Catholic clerics and the protection of children.
The planned summit marks the first significant step the pope has taken in response to abuse cases in the United States and elsewhere that have thrown his papacy into crisis.
“This is the first meeting of its kind in recent memory,” said Vatican spokeswoman Paloma Garcia Ovejero on Wednesday after Francis’ top cardinal advisors announced the conference would be held at the Vatican between Feb. 21 and 24.
The summit, which Garcia Ovejero said would bring about 130 bishops to Rome, follows a wave of new allegations of priestly abuse and coverups, just as many within the church thought the sexual abuse scandals that had beset the church were abating.
Last month a grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that more than 300 priests had been accused of abusing 1,000 children in the state since 1947, while a church-commissioned report in Germany has alleged 3,677 people were abused there between 1946 and 2014.
That report, leaked to German media on Wednesday, claims that more than half the victims were 13 or younger, that 1 in 6 cases involved rape and that at least 1,670 priests were involved.
Pope Francis castigated Chilean bishops in May over coverups of abuse in Chile and apologized to Chilean victims whom he earlier dismissed as “lefties” — left-wing agitators.
Francis’ about-turn on Chile convinced some Vatican watchers that he finally understood the gravity of coverups by bishops who shunt sexually abusive priests to new dioceses where they sometimes became repeat offenders.
Francis was challenged on his record again last month by a former U.S. nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who published an open letter claiming he had informed the pope in 2013 about sexual abuse committed by Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.
McCarrick continued to lead an active life in the church until Francis removed him from the College of Cardinals in July after claims emerged that he abused an altar boy in the 1970s.
McCarrick’s checkered record, as well as reports that his penchant for sleeping with seminarians had been covered up by senior clerics, helped prompt a meeting planned for Thursday between the pope and a delegation of U.S. prelates led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the conference of U.S. bishops, who will be joined by his vice president, Jose Horacio Gomez, archbishop of Los Angeles.
It will be the first such meeting since 2002, when Pope John Paul II summoned U.S. cardinals to the Vatican to discuss the first wave of sex abuse revelations in the church.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who succeeded McCarrick as archbishop of Washington, meanwhile said this week that he was also heading to Rome to meet with the pope. He has been accused by Vigano of knowing about McCarrick’s sexual activity but keeping silent, a charge he denies.
The Vatican gave no indication of what Francis hopes to achieve at the February summit. In 2011, the Vatican asked bishops conferences to draw up guidelines for dealing with abuse, which many — though not all — have done.
“If he wanted, Francis could issue a law tomorrow making it a church-wide obligation to report all accusations to the police, but he hasn't,” said Emiliano Fittipaldi, author of “Lussuria,” or “Lust,” a book about sex abuse in the church.
“To date Francis is anything but credible on tackling abuse,” he said. “Three of the cardinals he picked for his advisory commission … have been linked to coverups, his commission on abuse has achieved nothing and he scrapped plans for a tribunal to punish bishops caught covering up.”