In what could be a defining moment for his papacy, Pope Francis will welcome more than 100 top Catholic bishops from around the globe to Rome this week for an unprecedented summit aimed at tackling the issue of clergy sex abuse.
Never before has a pontiff convened the global church’s leaders to discuss the issue. And after a bruising year that saw high-ranking church officials resign in scandal, fresh investigations, and demands for new laws, the conference that opens Thursday could present an opportunity for Francis to dispel criticism that he has responded sluggishly as the crisis continued to flash across the globe.
But should his four-day event fail to deliver, the pope risks cementing the impression among detractors that he remains resistant to meaningful change.
Hundreds of reporters and sexual-abuse victims — including some from Pennsylvania — are expected to set up shop outside the Vatican as the prelates gather behind closed doors.
“They know that this is a very high-stakes meeting,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and scholar of church history at Villanova University. “The attention here in Rome is already similar to what you’d see for a papal conclave.”
As if to signal his seriousness, Francis on Saturday took his most meaningful step to date by defrocking Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, after the church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians.
Though the Vatican had laicized hundreds of priests for sexual misconduct since the worldwide crisis began nearly two decades ago, McCarrick, who previously served as a bishop in two New Jersey dioceses, is the first cardinal in modern history to be expelled from the priesthood, the most serious penalty the church can impose.
Before that significant move, Francis and his aides in recent weeks had sought to temper expectations for the conference itself. Speaking to reporters on a papal flight returning from World Youth Day in Panama last month, the pope suggested that anticipation surrounding the conference had grown well beyond anything the meeting itself could deliver.
“Let me say that I’ve perceived expectations that are a little inflated,” he said. “We need to deflate those expectations.”
Francis has pledged to attend every day of the confab and described his goals for the meetingas educating bishops on the issues of accountability, responsibility, and transparency, as well as explaining how to properly handle complaints from victims.
Late last week, the event’s organizers still had not released a full schedule, although they have urged attendees to meet with victims in their own countries before showing up in Rome.
The lone American on the planning team — Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago — told the Associated Press on Thursday that he expects the church will have made “significant progress” toward abuse prevention by the end of the week.
But neither he nor the rest of the committee has offered any sign that the summit will end with the type of sweeping pronouncements hoped for by some victims and their advocates in the United States.