Pope Francis summons bishops for summit on clergy sex abuse
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Pope Francis summons bishops for summit on clergy sex abuse

Rome: Alarmed by sexual abuse scandals in a number of countries, Pope Francis is summoning senior bishops to a meeting early next year to discuss the prevention of abuse by Roman Catholic clerics and the protection of children, the Vatican has announced.

The meeting of the heads of national bishops' conferences from around the world is scheduled for February 21-24 at the Vatican, a spokeswoman said.

The extraordinary meeting marks the most concrete step the pontiff has yet taken in response to a series of abuse cases that have roiled the church and thrown Francis' papacy into crisis.

The latest cases have increasingly revealed failures among higher-ups in reporting potential crimes and in punishing alleged abusers, causing anger among some Catholics who say the church has been too slow to build safeguards after decades of dealing with clerical abuse.

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The meeting was announced a day before the Pope is to meet with leaders of the US Catholic Church to discuss some of the latest scandals.

The Americans have called on Francis to launch a Vatican-led investigation into how Theodore McCarrick, a former US cardinal, climbed the ranks, even as rumours swirled about his behaviour. McCarrick, 88, became a cardinal in 2001 and served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006. He resigned from the College of Cardinals in July.

In a first for the Catholic Church, Pope Francis will hold a bishops' summit to deal with sexual abuse in the clergy.

In a first for the Catholic Church, Pope Francis will hold a bishops' summit to deal with sexual abuse in the clergy.Credit:AP

In addition, the Vatican has been rocked by an archbishop's accusations that the Pope knew for years about alleged sexual misconduct by a top American cardinal but took no action.

Abuse scandals have also shaken the Catholic Church in Australia, Chile and Ireland, among other countries. In the US, a grand jury report released last month from Pennsylvania found that more than 300 priests had sexually abused minors in the state over seven decades.

The planned Vatican meeting is believed to be unprecedented, indicating that the church recognises that clergy sex abuse is a global problem - potentially even in non-Western countries where the church maintains strong social power and cases have not come to light in great number.

The Vatican announced the event after Francis met with his Council of Cardinals, his de facto cabinet. The meeting in February will bring together the heads of all national bishops' conferences.

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Francis faces pressure on many fronts, particularly in how he handles the McCarrick investigation, which could point fingers back to members of the Vatican hierarchy. Francis has not responded directly to the accusations that he was told of McCarrick's misconduct in 2013, but the Vatican said Monday that "clarifications" would be forthcoming.

In Australia, Archbishop Philip Wilson was last month sentenced to home detention for concealing Hunter priest Jim Fletcher’s child sex crimes. The prosecution was a landmark case.

"[Francis'] credibility is under threat," said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher. "And thus he needs a strong action."

The Vatican's statement on Wednesday did not set out what the agenda might look like in February. Victims' groups have long said that the Vatican needs to better address how to deal with prelates who cover up abuse, and how to ensure that abuse victims have a clear way to report what happens to them. Protocols for dealing with abuse in the church vary wildly from country to country.

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Last month, in a letter to the world's Catholics, Francis said the church must prevent sexual abuse from being "covered up and perpetuated". But within the divided church, Francis's stance on the underlying reasons for abuse have been contested.

While Francis has often talked about sexual crimes as an abuse of power, some conservatives say the Pope has downplayed the role of homosexuality among priests while instead signalling a slightly more inclusive stance about gays within the church.

Washington Post, Fairfax Media