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Pope’s sex abuse prevention summit explained

February 23, 2019
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Pope Francis prays at the beginning of the third day of a Vatican's conference on dealing with sex abuse by priests, at the Vatican, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, Pool)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis is hosting a four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse, a high-stakes meeting designed to impress on Catholic bishops around the world that the problem is global and that there are consequences if they cover it up.

The meeting, which opened Thursday, comes at a critical time for the church and Francis’ papacy, following the explosion of the scandal in Chile last year and renewed outrage in the United States over decades of cover-up that were exposed by the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

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WHAT’S ON THE AGENDA?

The meeting is divided into three thematic days, with the final day — Sunday — devoted to Mass and a concluding address from the pope.

Day 1 explored bishops’ responsibilities to their flocks, including their legal responsibility to investigate and prevent abuse.

Day 2 was dedicated to accountability and focused on church leaders working together, along with rank-and-file Catholics, to protect children.

Day 3 focused on transparency, and featured remarks from a Nigerian religious sister, a German cardinal and a Mexican journalist.

The summit began with videotaped testimony of survivors, but there were no sessions devoted specifically to hearing their stories. Participants were told to meet with victims before coming to Rome to learn first-hand of their pain — and to drive home the idea that clergy sex abuse isn’t confined to certain parts of the world.

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WHO IS ATTENDING?

More than 100 presidents of bishops conferences are attending, though at least two — Chilean Archbishop Santiago Silva and Costa Rican Archbishop Jose Rafael Quiros — sent deputies because they themselves are implicated in covering up abuse.

The guest list includes 14 leaders from eastern rite churches, 12 religious superiors of men’s orders and 10 from women’s religious orders. About a dozen Vatican prefects, as well as a half-dozen of the pope’s cardinal advisers and a handful of others, round out the 190 participants.

Only a handful are women, a point driven home by the attention given to the few who were invited to attend.

Three women were selected to address the summit, and after the first of their speeches was delivered Friday by leading canon lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Francis gave a spontaneous meditation on the “feminine mystery” of the church.

“It’s not about giving more jobs to women in the church — yes, this is good but it doesn’t resolve the problem,” he said. “It’s about integrating the woman as the figure of the church into our thinking.”

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WHAT ARE THE EXPECTED OUTCOMES?

Organizer Cardinal Blase Cupich issued a detailed set of proposals in his address Friday for investigating and holding bishops accountable when they cover up sex abuse, suggesting that new norms are in the works. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said Friday that a “clarification” to the existing norms is expected soon.

In addition, organizer the Rev. Hans Zollner has said he hopes the summit will result in the creation of task forces on each continent to help national bishops’ conferences develop guidelines to fight abuse and tend to victims.

The Vatican in 2011 told these conferences to draft such guidelines, but to date only about half have adopted policies that have been approved by the Holy See. Not even Vatican City has a policy on the books.

Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican sex crimes investigator, stressed that follow-up for the meeting would be key, mentioning “audits” of conferences to check their progress.

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HAVE GAY PRIESTS AND SEXUAL ABUSE OF ADULTS BE DISCUSSED?

The scandal over ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked last week after being convicted by the Vatican of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians, exposed both the issue of homosexuality among Catholic leaders and the sexual abuse of adults under their authority. Francis’ recent comments about the sexual abuse of nuns also made clear that minors aren’t the only victims of predator priests.

Neither was on the summit agenda, but the issue has come up in discussion, participants said.

Cupich said the sexual abuse of adults needs to be addressed, but he said the four-day summit must remain focused on its original intent.

“Young people, minors don’t have a voice. They are kept in silence,” he said earlier this week. “This is about making sure their voice is heard.”