Rome -- After thousands of cases of clerical sexual abuse of minors have come to light over decades, an unprecedented summit of leading bishops gathered to discuss the protection of minors in the church is set to start in the Vatican on Thursday. Speaking to the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Pope Francis called the upcoming meeting a "powerful gesture of pastoral responsibility in the face of an urgent challenge."
The four-day gathering -- announced by Pope Francis in September -- will bring together about 190 people, nearly all male clerics. The participants include more than 100 presidents of bishops ’conferences from 130 countries, leaders of eastern churches, prefects of Vatican departments tasked with addressing the issue, 12 male heads of male religious orders, 10 heads of female religious orders, plus those on the organizing committee and members of the pope's advisory Council of Cardinals.
The meeting, which loosely follows the format of a synod, will include speeches by prominent cardinals, carefully-chosen from all the continents, with the pope introducing the meeting at its start Thursday and closing it with a speech following the Penitential Liturgy Saturday evening and concelebrated Sunday morning mass, in which multiple priests say mass together.
At a crowded press conference earlier this week, Vatican officials highlighted the goal of the meeting to ensure that all bishops around the globe – even in countries where cases have not yet emerged -- are fully aware and up to speed with the church’s rules and procedures as to how to deal with complaints of sexual abuse.
"We are going to do everything possible to make sure people are held responsible, accountable and there’s going to be transparency, because those elements will keep children safe," Cardinal Blase Cupich from Chicago, who is seen as a close ally of the pope and was one of the panelists, said at the press conference.
While Cupich said there was no quick fix for the problem, he said that he saw the meeting as a "turning point in how the Catholic Church will handle allegations around the world going forward."
Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who was also present and works in the Vatican office that handles sex abuse allegations involving the clergy, said that the summit leaders did not plan to produce a new document because the church’s canon law, papal documents and norms suffice to deal with the problem.
Vatican officials said that an unspecified number of victims of both sexes will be present at the meeting during moments of prayer, but that their identities will be kept private according to their wishes.
The pope, however, had asked all bishop leaders to prepare for this summit by speaking and spending time listening to victims in their own countries.
Just this week the organizers invited about a dozen victims of different nationalities to a meeting near the Vatican on Wednesday. Ahead of the meeting, Peter Isely, a spokesman for Ending Clergy Abuse said that advocates want the pope to put zero tolerance into practice, by kicking out abusive priests and expelling bishops and cardinals who covered them up.
"Resignations are not enough," Isely insisted.
But many of the victims of clerical sex abuse and various advocacy groups -- already in Rome in large numbers ahead of the meeting -- do not seem hopeful that there will be any great change after this meeting. Even if Pope Francis has called the problem of ridding clerical sex abuse an "urgent challenge," they say that this meeting comes at least 20 years too late and that the church is moving too slowly to deal with such a serious crisis.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopsAccountability.org, a group that documents the crisis of clerical sex abuse around the world, told reporters in Rome Tuesday that she fears that the pope seems to be on the retreat from consolidating reforms to end this "epidemic." However, she said, Pope Francis was the first pope to have said that bishops have to be held accountable and that there had to be an end to all cover-ups.
Many in Rome also insist that the focus of this meeting on minors is too restrictive wanting the discussion to include other vulnerable groups that have suffered clerical sexual abuse like seminarians, vulnerable adults, and women religious.
Others, in the wake of the laicization of former Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop Vigano’s explosive missives this summer, want the topics of homosexuality among the clergy and celibacy to be addressed.