VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has summoned bishops from around the world to Rome for an unprecedented meeting focused on protecting minors, the Vatican announced Wednesday, as the pontiff wrestles with a global clerical sexual abuse crisis and explosive accusations of a cover-up that have shaken his papacy and the entire Roman Catholic Church.
The pope called the presidents of the world's bishops' conferences to gather from Feb. 21 to 24, according to the Vatican, which added that he had "amply reflected" on the issue with his top council of cardinal advisers during three days of meetings that ended on Wednesday. It would be the first global gathering of church leaders to discuss the crisis.
The announcement came on the eve of a meeting in the Vatican on Thursday between the pope and a group of leading U.S. bishops. They are seeking answers and a full investigation into why one of their most prominent colleagues was allowed to ascend to a top position in the U.S. church, despite allegations that he had sexually abused seminarians.
Reports of misconduct by that prelate, Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., led to his resignation as cardinal. His successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, revealed on Tuesday that he planned to discuss his resignation with Francis. The cardinal, formerly the archbishop of Pittsburgh, has faced withering criticism since the release last month of a grand jury report saying that more than 1,000 children had been victimized over decades in Pennsylvania, and that church leaders had covered it up.
The case of McCarrick continues to shake the church, after a bombshell letter by the Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accused Francis of lifting sanctions against the American put in place by Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Since Viganò published his letter and called for Francis' resignation late last month, reports have cast doubt on whether Benedict formally penalized McCarrick, and have shown that the Vatican knew about the American's practice of inviting seminarians into his bed since 2000.
Neither Francis nor Benedict, who is retired, has responded to the letter, which has opened up an ideological war inside the Vatican. Among the American church leaders scheduled to meet the pope on Thursday are Wuerl; Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, Francis' leading adviser on the issue of sexual abuse.
Many survivors of abuse have lamented that the letters and the power struggles in the Vatican have eclipsed the central issue of protecting children. The February meetings are intended to put the issue front and center again.
There were high hopes after Francis' election in 2013 that he would tackle the systemic problem of abuse in the church. He has ordered the resignations of several bishops, but he has failed to create a tribunal for holding negligent bishops accountable for covering up sexual crimes.