Pope Francis attends the four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican February 21, 2019. Image Credit: REUTERS

Vatican City: Pope Francis opened a landmark summit on preventing clerical sexual abuse Thursday, saying Catholics were looking to church leaders not for “simple and predictable condemnations,” but instead for “concrete and effective measures” to deal with the scourge.

“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” Francis told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders, asking them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice.” The pope and the almost 200 participants in a Vatican auditorium watched a video of five victims, who wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.

Historic summit

The pontiff’s brief address kicked off one of the most critical points of his papacy, a gathering of the world’s leading bishops to discuss a problem that the Catholic Church for decades has struggled to curb — and that has now damaged the pope’s own reputation. Church officials have called the four-day meeting one phase in a long process, not a cure-all. But the pope and the Vatican face intense pressure to push bishops from around the world to take the issue seriously, even in regions where abuse scandals have not yet broken into the public.

Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you... Listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice.

- Pope Francis

Hope for some action

Pope Francis did not specify Thursday what kind of concrete measures could result from the summit, and in late January he had tried to downplay expectations for the event. But organisers have said that the meeting aims to give bishops a clearer sense of guidelines for how to deal with abuse accusations — while emphasising the imperative to not keep those accusations silent. Still, the church is not aiming to draw up a single, global standard for dealing with abuse. Corrupt legal systems or draconian laws in some countries make it unrealistic, church officials have said, for the Vatican to mandate that all bishops report abuse accusations to criminal authorities — a standard that is common within the US church. “You cannot have a one-size-fits-all that comes out of this,” Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said in an interview. “They won’t be told: This is exactly what you have to do.”

Who’s who in attendance

The meeting involves some 190 participants, including the presidents of 114 episcopal conferences, with each day devoted to a different theme — responsibility, accountability and transparency. As the event opened Thursday, it had the feel of an educational gathering, with the pope and several others sitting at a panel up front, and more than a hundred red- and purple-capped prelates sitting with notepads and pens in ascending auditorium rows.

Several times holding back tears, Tagle said bishops had wounded the faith with their behaviour on abuse. “Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them, and covering up the scandal to protect the perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people,” Tagle said.

Pope Francis speaks with Rev. Federico Lombardi, left, the former Vatican spokesman who is moderating the summit, at the opening of a sex abuse prevention summit, at the Vatican. Image Credit: AP

Streaming key moments

The event is closed to the press, but the Vatican is live-streaming certain moments, including the remarks from the pope and the three official presentations that are planned for each day. But the additional portions, working group sessions and question-and-answer periods, are not being broadcast. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, one of the Vatican’s sex crimes investigators, described steps that prelates could take to improve safeguarding. Scicluna said any diocese should tell Catholics that they have a right to report abuse — and advise them of a clear contact point for doing so. When allegations are received, Scicluna said, they should be investigated “with the help of experts.” Scicluna reminded the bishops that abuse “is also a crime in all civil jurisdictions.” “The competence of the state authorities should be respected,” Scicluna said. “Reporting laws should be followed carefully. And a spirit of collaboration will benefit both the church and society in general.”