Pope Francis, signaling the Catholic Church's inability to defuse long-running clergy sex scandals, on Wednesday summoned the presidents of Catholic bishops conferences worldwide to the Vatican in February to discuss protecting children and preventing sexual abuse by priests.
The meeting, on February 21-24, is believed to be the first of its kind and comes amid growing criticism over the pope's handling of sex abuse cases dating back decades.
In addition, Pope Francis will meet Thursday with a group of U.S. church figures led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The meeting will include Francis’ top sex abuse adviser, Cardinal Sean O’Malley.
DiNardo has said he wants Francis to authorize a full-fledged Vatican investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was removed as cardinal in July after a credible accusation that he groped a teenager. McCarrick, 88, served as Archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006.
The public outcry worldwide over sex scandals was particularly evident in the pope's visit to Ireland three weeks ago when he met eight survivors of sexual abuse. In a speech at Dublin Castle, Pope Francis asked forgiveness for the "abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, conscience and sexual abuses" perpetrated by Church leaders over such "repellent crimes."
The burgeoning scandals have increasingly raised questions about the pope's personal handling of the issue.
Earlier this year, after repeatedly discrediting victims of a notorious Chilean predator priest, the pope admitted to “grave errors in judgment” and took steps to make amends, sanction guilty bishops and remake the Chilean episcopacy.
More recently, a retired Vatican ambassador alleged that Pope Francis had rehabilitated McCarrick, the disgraced U.S. cardinal, from sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI for having molested and harassed adult seminarians.
The Vatican hasn’t responded to the charges by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, but has promised “clarifications” that could follow Thursday's meeting with the U.S. delegation. DiNardo has said the recent accusations of an alleged coverup by top Vatican officials, including Francis, deserve answers.
The pope's call for a worldwide conference in February follows a steady drumbeat of legal cases aimed at the church:
• A grand jury report released in Pennsylvania in August said 300 "predator priests" had abused more than 1,000 children in the state over the past seven decades. The report claimed the church was more interested in protecting its own interests and the abusers than tending to the victims.
• A Chicago-area Catholic diocese has agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit filed by three men who alleged they were sexually molested by their priest when they were boys.
• In Indiana last month, the Diocese of Gary published on its website a list of 10 priests who had served in the diocese and had "been found guilty of credible actions of sexual molestation of minors." The list included their names, the number of allegations against them and the actions taken by the diocese.
Contributing: John Bacon; the Associated Press