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The Vatican meeting on clergy sex abuse, explained

Members of the Ending of Clergy Abuse organization and survivors of clergy sex abuse pose for photographers outside St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican on Monday.Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press/Associated Press

What is the meeting about?

Catholic church leaders from around the world are holding an unprecedented summit on clergy sex abuse of children, beginning Thursday. The four-day meeting convened by Pope Francis will include 190 presidents of bishops’ conferences and other officials. It will feature lectures and workshops on preventing abuse, tending to victims, and investigating abuse cases.

Officials say there will be three themes: responsibility, accountability, and transparency. Some observers have high expectations for change from the meeting, but others think the church is nowhere near enacting needed reforms.

Boston College theology professor Stephen Pope said, “I think the Vatican and leaders in the church are now realizing the problem is global, not just a problem of the developed world. . . . People are beginning to connect the dots that when you have unaccountable power, people abuse it, whether they have Roman collars on or not.”


Why have I been hearing so much about this problem?

In the early 2000s, after The Boston Globe Spotlight series on clergy sex abuse broke, the church in the United States moved to protect children from sex abuse. Pope, the professor, said in a telephone interview that “significant progress” was made in combating the problem.

But the headlines have kept coming, in the United States and around the world, and there seemed to be an uptick in the past year.

What happened in the past year?

There were a number of scandalous stories in the past year or so. Here are three of the biggest:

■  Pope Francis sparked outrage in January 2018 when he defended a bishop in Chile who was accused of protecting a pedophile priest. He later said he had made a mistake. ‘‘I was part of the problem,’’ he told a Chilean abuse survivor in a private meeting at the Vatican in June.

■  A Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August found that church leaders in Pennsylvania covered up sexual abuse by 300 priests. The report found the priests had more than 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years and said there were probably thousands more victims. Following the report, more than a dozen other state attorneys general and the federal government launched investigations.


■  Allegations of sex abuse surfaced last summer against Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington. Critics said Francis had turned a blind eye to the abuse, but the Vatican disputed that. Pope Francis has expelled McCarrick from the priesthood, the Vatican said Saturday as the clergy sex abuse summit approached.

How do Catholics feel about the clergy sex abuse scandals?

Some Catholics are getting impatient, former Spotlight Team member Michael Rezendes reported in a Boston Globe Ideas article. “It’s way past time for words and promises,” Marie Collins, a clergy abuse survivor in Ireland, told Rezendes. “I think the church is at a crossroads. It’s either do something now or get off the playing field. A lot of people have come to the end of their tether,” said Collins, a former member of a blue-ribbon panel named by Pope Francis to make policy recommendations for preventing abuse.

BC’s Pope agreed that that some Catholics are fed up. “Many Catholics have left. Others are disgusted,” he said. “I think ‘impatience’ is not strong enough.”

What is the issue with accountability for American bishops?

BC’s Pope said that in the United States, after the crackdown on clergy sex abuse in the early 2000s, one gap in the policy remained: accountability for bishops.


“The missing piece here is the inability to hold bishops accountable, either for bishops covering up abusive priests or who themselves were sexual abusers, and this has continued to be a problem,” he said.

US bishops met in November and were going to put accountability measures in place, but the Vatican intervened, putting it on hold. Pope said that created the expectation that the measures would be approved at this meeting.

“But it’s not on the agenda, really,” he said. “It might come up, but it’s not the purpose of the conference.”

“The pope says the purpose is to educate the bishops. Educating is different than legislating,” he said.

What are the other secrets and scandals I’ve been hearing about?

In recent weeks, a variety of other stories have broken that have exposed church secrets, though they are not about clergy sex abuse of children. Here are some of them:

■  The Vatican confirmed that it has general guidelines for what to do when priests break their celibacy vows and father children, The New York Times reported.

■  Pope Francis has acknowledged that priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns, The Associated Press reported.

■  While the church has rejected gay congregants, thousands of the church’s priests are gay, The New York Times reported.

What has Boston Cardinal O’Malley said and done about the clergy sex abuse scandals?

O’Malley, who arrived in Boston in 2003 to deal with the Boston Archdiocese’s sex abuse scandal, will attend the summit. He is the president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children, the blue ribbon panel developing policy recommendations to combat abuse. He himself apologized in August for the way his office handled a 2015 letter from a New York priest alleging sexual abuse by Cardinal McCarrick. O’Malley’s secretary did not deliver the letter to O’Malley on the grounds that the commission was about policies and not individual cases. Church officials say that office procedure has been changed and O’Malley will review all abuse-related letters.


As the scandals have broken, O’Malley has warned that if the church doesn’t address clergy sex abuse it “could threaten and endanger the already weakened moral authority of the Church.”

In a letter to Catholic churches this weekend, O’Malley and four other Massachusetts bishops said, “The past year has been especially traumatic, and we again apologize to survivors and their families for all they have endured. We also apologize to the Catholic community for the seemingly unending nature of this scandal and the many questions it raises regarding Church leadership.”

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.