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Pope Francis calls for major global summit over child clerical sex abuse crisis

This unprecedented conference hints that the Church is finally taking the global crisis seriously.

Catholic Church Faces Growing Crises Over Clerical Sex Abuse
Pope Francis’s papacy has become increasingly embattled over the child sex abuse crisis.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Catholic leaders from around the world will assemble at the Vatican this February for a summit to finally contend with the global crisis of child sex abuse at the hands of clerics. Leaders from each bishops’ conference around the world will convene at the Vatican for an emergency meeting to discuss the Church’s handling of widespread clerical sex abuse of children over the past several decades.

This summit, which is unprecedented in scope and scale, represents the most significant and public-facing effort by the Vatican to address the global clerical sex abuse crisis.

Though knowledge of widespread abuse has been in the news for more than two decades, particularly in the US and Ireland, this year has been a watershed moment for the crisis. Every single bishop in Chile resigned at Francis’s behest over their collective participation in covering up the abuses of Rev. Fernando Karadima in May. That same month, the Australian media reported that the influential Cardinal George Pell would stand trial in Melbourne for charges of decades-old child sex abuse.

The summer saw still more revelations. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, DC, was stripped of his title in disgrace in July after revelations emerged that he had repeatedly sexually harassed junior seminarians under his care, as well as at least two minors.

And then a landmark August grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused at least 300 priests of molesting at least 1,000 minors over the past seven decades. Later that month, a former Vatican official accused Pope Francis of knowingly reversing Vatican sanctions against McCarrick placed by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, despite knowing of McCarrick’s conduct with adults. Ex-papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò has not suggested that anyone in the Vatican, including Francis, knew about McCarrick’s abuse of minors.

Francis has not formally responded to these accusations, although in a recent homily he alluded to the “Great Accuser” — Satan — attempting to stir up distrust among bishops by trying “to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people,” seeming to suggest that Viganò’s letter might have been diabolically motivated.

This unprecedented meeting also reveals that the Vatican is finally treating the sex abuse crisis as a global, not a localized, crisis. As David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center for Religion and Culture, told Vox last month, Vatican defenders have traditionally treated clerical sex abuse as an “American phenomenon, or an Anglo phenomenon” — something divorced from the Vatican itself. This summit, however, seems to acknowledge that the crisis encompasses more than just the English-speaking world.

Indeed, in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, more and more revelations have emerged worldwide. On Wednesday, a German report accusing 1,670 priests of abusing at least 3,677 was leaked weeks before publication. And in France, a priest, Rev. Pierre Vignon, has garnered a 100,000-strong petition demanding the resignation of a senior cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, who is due to stand trial next year for his own role in covering up pedophile priests;

The announcement for the summit came the day before Pope Francis is set to meet with several high-ranking American ecclesiastical officials, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Boston Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a longtime Francis ally and outspoken advocate for child sex abuse victims.

Both Francis’s meetings and the summit demonstrate that Francis has come a long way when it comes to assessing the severity of the sex abuse crisis. Last December, Francis attracted criticism when he dismissed accusations against one Chilean priest accused of covering up a pedophile as mere “calumny,” a dismissal for which he later apologized. But less than 10 months later, as revelations continue to emerge worldwide, Francis seems to be taking the scale of the crisis much more seriously

Still, Francis continues to resist calls to comment on how much he knew about McCarrick and when he knew it. Until he answers that question, instead of blaming a “Great Accuser,” it’s unclear how much progress can be made.

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