VATICAN CITY – The organizers of Pope Francis’ summit on preventing clergy sex abuse will meet this week with a dozen abuse victims who have descended on Rome to protest the Catholic Church’s response to the crisis and demand an end to decades of cover-up by church leaders, officials said Monday.
These abuse survivors will not be addressing the summit of church leaders itself. Rather, they will meet Wednesday with the four-member organizing committee to convey their complaints.
The larger summit of some 190 presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world, plus key Vatican officials, begins Thursday.
At a press conference Monday, organizers called the summit a “turning point” in the church’s approach to clergy sex abuse. The Catholic Church has long been criticized for its failure to hold bishops accountable when they covered up for priests who raped and molested children.
They said the summit would focus on three key aspects of dealing with the crisis: making bishops aware of their own responsibilities to protect their flocks, the consequences of shirking those responsibilities, and the need for transparency.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s leading sex crimes investigator and an organizer of the meeting, said transparency was key, since the church’s knee-jerk response of denial and silence in the past had only exacerbated the problem.
“Whether it’s criminal or malicious complicity and a code of silence, or whether it’s denial or trauma in its very primitive state, we need to get away from that,” he told reporters. “We have to face the facts.”
Chilean abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz, who is coordinating the survivor meeting, told The Associated Press he hopes for a “constructive and open dialogue” and for summit members to convey survivors’ demand that bishops stop pleading ignorance about abuse.
“Raping a child or a vulnerable person and abusing them has been wrong since the 1st century, the Middle Ages, and now,” he said.
Francis called the summit in September after he himself discredited Cruz and other Chilean victims of a notorious predator priest. Francis was subsequently implicated in the cover-up of Theodore McCarrick, the onetime powerful American cardinal who just last week was defrocked for sexually abusing minors as well as adults.
Francis has urged participants to meet with abuse victims before they came to Rome, to both familiarize themselves with victims’ pain and trauma and debunk the widely held idea that clergy sex abuse only happens in some parts of the world.
Survivors will be represented at the summit itself, but only in a few key moments of prayer.
Summit moderator the Rev. Federico Lombardi said he would gladly receive any written messages from other survivors, expressing an openness to hear from a broad cross-section of victims.
Cruz said the key message for the bishops to take away from the summit is that they must enforce true “zero tolerance” or face the consequences.
“There are enforceable laws in the church to punish not only those who commit the abuse but those who cover it up,” he told the AP. “No matter what rank they have in the church, they should pay.”
Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, another conference organizer, agreed.
“There is going to be every effort to close whatever loopholes there are, to make sure that people understand on an individual basis as bishops what their responsibilities are,” he said. “Because they are going to be held accountable.”