Pope Francis greets bishops as he arrives for a sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican. Image Credit: AP

Highlights

  • Four-day high-level summit of church leaders opened to discuss prevention of clergy sex abuse
  • Bishops and superiors of religious orders are supposed to notify police when someone alleges that a priest molested a child
  • Penalties can range from the mild - a temporary suspension from publicly celebrating the sacraments or exercising ministry - to the more serious, such as defrocking

Pope Francis warned church leaders summoned Thursday to a landmark sex abuse prevention summit that the Catholic faithful are demanding more than just condemnation of the crimes of priests but concrete action to respond to the scandal.

Francis opened the four-day summit by telling the Catholic hierarchy that their own responsibility to deal effectively with priests who rape and molest children weighed on the proceedings.

"Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice," and seize the opportunity to "transform this evil into a chance for understanding and purification," Francis told the 190 leaders of bishops conferences and religious orders.

"The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established," he warned.

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the US, bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.

Bishops attend the opening of a global child protection summit for reflections on the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church at the Vatican Image Credit: AFP

Vatican's legal procedures for handling sex-abuse cases explained

For centuries, the Vatican's canon law system busied itself with banning books and dispensing punishments that included burnings at the stake for heretics.

These days, the Vatican office that eventually replaced the Roman Catholic Inquisition is knee-deep in processing clergy sex abuse cases. The procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will be on display this week as high-ranking bishops summoned by Pope Francis attend an unprecedented four-day tutorial on preventing sex abuse and prosecuting pedophile priests

Here is a primer on the Catholic Church's regulations for investigating both priests accused of molesting children and superiors who have been accused of covering up those crimes.

Sex abuse survivors and members of the ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) hold their organization banner as they talk to journalists, as some of their representatives are meeting with organizers of the summit on preventing sexual abuse at the Vatican Image Credit: AP

Are police called in for suspected sex abuse cases?

In countries where clergy are required to report child abuse, bishops and superiors of religious orders are supposed to notify police when someone alleges that a priest molested a child and they are supposed to cooperate with any investigations.

However, the policy is nonbinding and only was articulated publicly in 2010 when the Vatican posted it on its website. Prior to that, the Vatican long sought to prevent public law enforcement agencies from learning about abusers in the clergy.

Irish bishops who considered adopting a mandatory reporting policy in 1997 received a letter from the Vatican warning that their in-house church investigations could be compromised if they referred cases to Irish police.

Nowadays, the Vatican justifies not having a binding policy that requires all sex crimes to be reported to police by arguing that accused clergy could be unfairly persecuted in places where Catholics are a threatened minority.

Members of the ECA (Ending of Clergy Abuse) organization and survivors of clergy sex abuse pose for photographers outside St. Peter's Square. Organizers of Pope Francis' summit on preventing clergy sex abuse will meet this week with a dozen survivor-activists who have come to Rome to protest the Catholic Church's response to date and demand an end to decades of cover-up by church leaders. Image Credit: AP

What is the canonical procedure?

Once a bishop or superior receives an allegation of abuse by one of his priests, he is supposed to conduct a preliminary investigation. If the claim has a "semblance of truth" he sends the case to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review.

The superior often will remove the priest from public ministry pending the outcome of the investigation.

The CDF, as the congregation is known, has a staff of 17 canon lawyers who process the cases. There has long been a case backlog, however, and at one point Francis acknowledged it had topped 2,000, with cases taking years to reach a verdict.

Usually, the CDF sends the case back to the bishop to investigate more fully, either through a full canonical trial or via an expedited administrative process. If the evidence is overwhelming and serious, the CDF can send the case straight to the pope to decide the priest's fate.

What are the penalties for sex abusers?

Penalties can range from the mild - a temporary suspension from publicly celebrating the sacraments or exercising ministry - to the more serious, such as defrocking, which is removing a cleric from the priesthood.

Elderly priest abusers often have been spared defrockings, even for heinous crimes. Instead, they were given a lifetime of "penance and prayer".

How many priests have been defrocked for sex abuse?

File photo: Theodore Edgar McCarrick Image Credit: AFP

Just last week, though, Francis defrocked 88-year-old Theodore McCarrick, the once-prominent American cardinal who was convicted by the Vatican's canon law tribunal of sexually abusing minors and adults.

The Vatican told a United Nations committee that 848 priests had been defrocked and another 2,572 given lesser sanctions from 2004-2014.

Since then, the Vatican has not released any more data on defrockings, evidence that such transparency was not universally welcomed in the Holy See.

There is a fierce debate within the Catholic hierarchy about whether priests should be defrocked for sex abuse or given lesser sanctions. Many powerful cardinals close to Francis, aghast at the thinning of clerical ranks from so many defrockings, favour a more "merciful" approach.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who enforced a tough line on abusers when he was the Vatican's lead sex crimes prosecutor from 2002-2012, has recently returned to a position of power at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He said this week he would support releasing new defrocking statistics.

What about abuse cover-ups?

While the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI cracked down on abusive priests, the bishops who shielded them largely got a pass.

In 2015, with demands for accountability growing, Francis agreed to create a tribunal section within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to handle cases accusing bishops of negligence. But a year later, he scrapped the plan.

Instead, the pope outlined procedures to investigate bishops and punish them, making clear they could be removed from office if they were found to have been negligent in handling abuse cases of their clergy.

In addition, the Vatican office that vets new bishops, in soliciting comments about potential candidates, now includes an "explicit question on how the candidate has dealt with sexual abuse issues and whether he has been criticized for not doing the right thing," Scicluna said.

Abuse survivors demand Vatican transparency and accountability

Survivors of clergy sex abuse on Wednesday demanded transparency, zero tolerance for abuse and accountability for religious superiors who cover up for rapists, setting a confrontational tone on the eve of Pope Francis' high-stakes abuse prevention summit.

The victims also demanded to meet with Francis himself, but had to settle instead for a two-hour round-table with members of the organizing committee for the four-day summit, which starts Thursday (today).

The gathering of church leaders from around the globe is taking place amid intense scrutiny of the Catholic Church's record after new allegations of abuse and cover-up last year sparked a credibility crisis for the hierarchy.

BishopAccountability.org group director Phil Saviano (left) and co-director Anne Barrett Doyle attends a press conference at the foreign press association in Rome. Image Credit: AP

Phil Saviano, an American who played a crucial role in exposing clergy abuse in the United States decades ago, said he told the summit organizers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files.

"Do it to launch a new era of transparency," Saviano said he told the committee. "Do it to break the code of silence. Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children."

After 30 years

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the US, bishops and superiors in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia either deny clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.

Some 190 leaders of bishops' conferences, religious orders and Vatican offices are gathering for four days of lectures and workshops on preventing sex abuse in their churches, tending to victims and investigating the crimes when they occur.

"I think that the time for words is long, long past," said Archbishop Mark Benedict Coleridge, of Brisbane, Australia, who will deliver the homily at the summit's final Mass on Sunday.

"We are dealing with a global emergency, and I don't think the language is too strong," he said. "A global emergency that requires a global response."

Expectations

The Vatican isn't expecting any miracles, and the pope himself has called for expectations to be "deflated." But organizers say the meeting marks a turning point in the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem, with Francis' own acknowledgment of his mistakes in handling the Chile abuse case a key point of departure.

"I have been impressed by the humility of the Holy Father," said Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican sex crimes investigator who helped set Francis straight on Chile. "He's ready to say, 'I got that wrong. We're not going to do it again. We're going to do it right.'"

"I think that gives us great hope," Scicluna said.

The Vatican had asked Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who last year helped open Francis' eyes to the seriousness of the abuse scandal in his country, to arrange the Wednesday's meeting.

"The culture of cover-up needs to end," Cruz said after the meeting, which was held on the grounds of a gated Vatican residence with survivor protesters waiting outside.