Pope Francis this week is hosting the Catholic Church’s first-ever summit on sex abuse.
Nearly 200 bishops and other prelates from around the world will gather in Rome to discuss transparency, responsibility, and accountability as related to clerical sex abuse.
The summit will feature a series of speeches from bishops and laypeople as well as testimonies from sex abuse victims.
In his opening address on Thursday, Francis called on his audience to discuss “how to address this evil that afflicts the church and humanity.” The world is watching and expecting the meeting to produce “not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to implement.”
In a document provided to attendees, Francis outlines a list of discussion points including:
- Establishing rules for handling accusations
- Involving experts outside the Church to conduct investigations
- Increasing the minimum marriage age to 16
The summit differs from ordinary Catholic meetings in that participants won’t make speeches from the floor or vote on a final document. There is no clear procedure for making proposals. And while Vatican officials have portrayed the event as a turning point in the sex abuse crisis, many are doubtful the summit will achieve any real progress.
“It’s not enough to be encouraged, inspired, and energized,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia. “We will need some concrete measures, not final measures, but concrete steps in the right direction, and some of them I think will have to come from the Pope. I can’t see where else.”
Among the most urgent needs is a “workable mechanism to ensure accountability for bishops” who fail to report sex abuse.
One of the biggest challenges in preventing sex abuse is the current distribution of responsibility between local dioceses and the Vatican – a system which makes it easy for those in power to defer accountability for abusive clerics and to cover up accusations. Perhaps this is why the sex abuse crisis exists worldwide.
Among the goals for victims and activists is for the Church to implement the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the United States in 2002. According to the policy, abusers are immediately removed from the Church if found guilty of a single act of abuse.
The first high-ranking Catholic to suffer this punishment in the US was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was kicked out of the Church this month after having been found guilty of soliciting sex during confession.
Other Cardinals on the chopping block include Australian Cardinal George Pell, who is on trial for “historic child sexual offenses,” and French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who has been accused of participating in a cover-up.
The Vatican does not favor “zero tolerance” and in years past has reduced the sentences of abusers. Last November, the Vatican asked the United States Conference of Bishops to delay a vote on measures that would hold bishops accountable for abuse committed by priests in their diocese.