“Hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice,” he declared as the three-and-ahalf day meeting began.
Francis later handed out a 21-point list of “guidelines” which included suggestions such as drawing up mandatory codes of conduct for priests, training people to spot abuse and informing police.
The ongoing scandals have escalated into a crisis which has touched many countries across the globe. In the latest case, a group supporting victims of paedophile priests in Poland on Thursday released a report documenting nearly 400 cases of sex abuse by clerics in the staunchly Catholic nation.
Francis convened the summit at the Vatican to prevent cover-ups of sex abuse by Catholic superiors everywhere. The gathering comes as many bishops and authorities around the world still try to protect the Church’s reputation at all costs, denying that priests rape children and discrediting victims even as new cases keep coming to light.
Francis, history’s first Latin American pope, has made many of the same mistakes. As archbishop in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he played a decisive and divisive role in Argentina’s most famous abuse case, commissioning a four-volume, 2,000-plus page forensic study of the legal case against a convicted priest that concluded he was innocent, that his victims were lying and that the case never should have gone to trial.
Despite the study, the Supreme Court in 2017 upheld the conviction and 15-year prison sentence for the Reverend Giulio Grassi, a celebrity priest who ran homes for street children across Argentina.
More recently, an Argentine bishop close to Francis, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, was placed under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct. Francis had brought Zanchetta to the Vatican and given him a high-ranking job after he resigned suddenly from his post in 2017. The Vatican insists no allegation of sexual abuse was lodged until last year, but local Church officials said they raised the alarm about inappropriate behaviour in 2015.
Francis also took a handful of measures early on in his papacy that undermined progress the Vatican had made in taking a hard line against rapists. These include the pontiff publicly botching a wellknown sex abuse cover-up case in Chile by initially giving it no credence. But Francis realised last year he had erred. “I was part of the problem,” Francis told Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz during a private meeting at the Vatican in June.
The pope has now done an about-face and is bringing the rest of the Church leadership along with him at the extraordinary summit. Some 190 presidents of bishops’ conferences, religious orders and Vatican offices are gathering for four days of lectures and workshops on preventing sex abuse in their churches, tending to victims and investigating abuse when it does occur.
The Vatican isn’t expecting any miracles, and the pope himself has called for expectations to be “deflated.” But organisers say the meeting marks a turning point in the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem, with Francis’ own conversion last year a key point of departure.
“I have been impressed by the humility of the Holy Father,” said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican sex crimes investigator who helped set Francis straight on Chile. “He’s ready to say ‘I got that wrong. We’re not going to do it again.’”
But the challenges are daunting as the message trickles down slowly.
Just this week, the online research group BishopAccountability released statistics from eight of the largest Catholic countries in the world, with the bishops from only one country — the United States — committing to a policy to permanently remove any priest who has sexually abused a child. Bishops in some countries, including Brazil, don’t even have a published abuse policy to speak of. In Italy, the president of the bishops’ conference met with abuse victims for the first time last week — but only after summit organisers demanded it.
“I want to say that something important is going to come out of the week, but based on research we’ve done, I believe this church is nowhere close to enacting the reforms it must make to stop this epidemic,” said BishopAccountability’s Anne Barret Doyle.