Pope Francis will welcome more than 100 Catholic bishops from around the world to the Holy See this week for an unprecedented four-day summit to discuss clerical sex abuse in a bid to stanch the damage being done to the Church by a crisis that has roiled it for decades.
The Vatican has sought to lower expectations in the summit's run-up, but observers say it could mark a defining moment, giving the Church hierarchy a belated opportunity to convince abuse survivors and increasingly skeptical congregations that it intends to tackle the scandal definitively and cleanse a tarnished institution, which has long been accused of covering up clerical transgressions.
The summit comes days after the Vatican defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the onetime archbishop of Washington, DC. The 88-year-old last week became the most senior prelate in modern times to be be stripped of his priestly rank after a Vatican inquiry found him guilty of abusing both adults and minors and even soliciting sex during confession.
The pontiff's aides say they hope McCarrick's defrocking will be seen as an emphatic demonstration of Francis's determination to restore the Church's credibility and his commitment to take action against abusers, however elevated their rank.
Coordinated attack on the pontiff
Last August, the pope was accused by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, a former Vatican ambassador and a doctrinal opponent of the reform-minded Francis, of having been aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against the U.S. cardinal, but choosing to ignore them.
In a scathing 11-page document crafted with the assistance of a well-known Italian journalist and ultra-conservative critic of the pope, Vigano also said there was a gay cabal in the upper echelons of the Church, alleging it colluded in covering up abuse and has been all too ready to overlook abuse allegations when leveled against friends and progressive allies.
The allegation against Francis was dismissed as a lie by the Vatican as well as by aides of the pontiff's predecessor, the conservative Benedict XVI.
Abuse survivors also criticized the coordinated attack on the pontiff, denouncing it as a false narrative, homophobic in nature, and a bid to manipulate the clerical abuse scandal into being another front in the long-running doctrinal struggle between progressives and conservatives over Church reform.
They say clerical sex abuse cuts across doctrinal positions and has been able to continue because of a culture of concealment and the Church's instinctive shielding of priests from claims of wrongdoing, regardless of the doctrinal hue of the incumbent pope.
Stephen Bleach, a British abuse survivor who attended a Catholic school in west London during the 1970s and was one of possibly hundreds of boys abused by priests teaching there, has claimed violent pedophilia "was able to continue undetected, decade after decade, because the secretive culture of the Catholic Church valued abusers more than children."
A police detective giving evidence earlier this month at a tribunal in London echoed the allegation, saying he had the impression that the hierarchy at St. Benedict's School in Ealing saw its first loyalty as being toward the alleged perpetrators rather than the victims. School support staff told the inquiry they were instructed to keep their suspicions to themselves.
One drama teacher, who taught at the school in the 1990s, said, "To complain meant putting your job on the line. It felt like the mafia."
The evidence given about abuse at St. Benedict's has been repeated in dozens of inquiries examining allegations across the world - notably in the United States, Ireland, Germany, Australia and Latin America. Last August, the Church was rocked by the release of a grand jury report in the U.S. which detailed the abuse of children in six Pennsylvania dioceses over the past seven decades by hundreds of "predator priests."
Shocking history of coverups
The grand jury report detailed a shocking and dismal history of coverups in the dioceses and the withholding from secular authorities by the Church hierarchy of evidence of abuse.
Endemic abuse in Europe
The Vatican has been accused of a pattern, even in the recent past, of impeding police inquiries into endemic abuse in Europe, failing to divulge information it had and even claiming not to know the whereabouts of a priest who skipped bail in Britain before standing trial on more than a dozen abuse and rape charges. The Vatican bank had been transferring some funds from his account to him while he was on the run in the Balkans, according to a 2017 court case in London.
Francis on Sunday asked for prayers for the summit, which starts Thursday, calling abuse "an urgent challenge of our time." The senior Vatican figure moderating the summit said last week the Church's credibility was "strongly at stake." "
We must deal with this theme with depth and without fear," Father Federico Lombardi said.
Francis has sought, say his aides, to get out ahead of the unfolding scandal but keeps being wrong-footed as more details of historical abuse and their accompanying cover-ups have come to light. Some Vatican insiders fear the scandal, which has roiled the Church for more than two decades now, could worsen, arguing there are many more cases likely still to come to light, especially from developing countries in Africa and South America.
In December, Francis vowed the church would never again conceal sexual abuse, and warned abusers to "hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice." Earlier this month he issued the first Vatican acknowledgement of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops.
Survivor advocacy groups will mount prayer services, vigils and marches this week and have urged bishops to meet abuse survivors from their countries; but, they warn that there must be clear outcomes from the summit when it comes to accountability and transparency. Some argue the summit has been too hastily prepared - the pope only decided last September on holding the conference.
The main figures on the summit's oversight committee carry a lot of credibility with advocacy groups - the list includes notable experts on sexual abuse like Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and Jesuit priest Hans Zollner. But some critics worry the pope is not being sufficiently forceful.
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Jesuit priest Thomas Reese says, "In order to succeed, Francis will have to lay down the law and simply tell the bishops what to do, rather than consulting with them. He'll have to present a solution to the crisis and tell them to go home and implement it." Reese says he doubts Francis will do that, saying the pope's approach to Church governance is founded on collegiality.