VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has presented a 21-point plan to combat child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that includes simplifying reporting procedures for victims and involving non-religious experts in internal church investigations.
Speaking at a crisis summit with bishops summoned to the Vatican from all over the world, the pope said victims wanted “concrete and effective measures” in the wake of the scandal, which has included tens of thousands of abuse allegations and claims of a cover-up.
The four-day Vatican conference started with prayers and hard-hitting audio messages from four abuse survivors that moved many bishops to tears.
“The holy people of God are looking at us and do not expect from us simple and predictable condemnations but concrete and effective measures,” Francis said in his opening speech.
Francis fell short of endorsing a key demand from abuse survivors, namely that all predator priests and bishops who cover up their crimes be expelled from the clergy.
He proposed “proportionality of punishment” towards abusive priests, while also stating that offenders should at least “leave the public ministry.”
The plan was dismissed as “not very concrete” by Peter Isely, a U.S. victim from Ending Clerical Abuse (ECA), a global advocacy group.
Miguel Hurtado, another ECA representative from Spain, accused the pontiff of not living up to his “zero tolerance” pledges.
“Pope Francis is saying, ‘Zero tolerance means whatever I want it to mean; in some cases I will defrock them, like, for example, in Chile because there is a lot of public outrage, in some cases I will keep them in ministry — it depends on what I want to do,’” Hurtado said.
This week’s unprecedented summit was called in response to a new spate of abuse allegations, including in the U.S., Chile and Australia, which exacerbated the Catholic Church’s decades-old sex abuse crisis.
It is a key test of Francis’ leadership, as the pope’s record on fighting abuse is under close scrutiny amid continuing criticism of his papacy from conservative circles.
Francis called on the Virgin Mary to “enlighten” bishops in their attempts to “heal the grave wounds that the pedophilia scandal has inflicted both on children and on the faithful.”
“Let us listen to the cry of the children who are calling for justice,” he added.
Nearly 200 high-ranking church figures, including head bishops from more than 110 countries and senior Vatican administration figures are taking part in deliberations.
One of the first things they heard was a Chilean survivor addressing them as “murderers of the faith,” and an African woman recalling 13 years of sex abuse that started at the age of 15 at the hands of her Catholic priest.
“I was far more moved by what I heard this morning than I expected to be. I was surprised by the way tears, as it were, welled up,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Australia said in a news conference.
The first day of discussions focused on the theme of responsibility. Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top investigator of sex abuse crimes, was one of the scheduled speakers.
Speaking to reporters, he said he believed that credibly accused clergy have to be punished, but “not necessarily” defrocked, or stripped of their priesthood.
Summit organizers, including Scicluna, hope it can raise awareness of the abuse crisis in parts of the world, like much of Asia and Africa, where the issue is barely registering.
Underscoring the problem, Coleridge said bishops from Asia and Africa asked in closed-door discussions: “Why this obsession with sexual abuse?”
According to Coleridge, they questioned the summit’s focus on pedophilia, arguing that in the developing world, child labor or child soldiers are more pressing concerns.
But German Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, another organizer, said participants were deliberately made to hear abuse stories “from all continents, in different languages, so it becomes clear that this is not a North American or Central European problem.”
The summit ends Sunday with a Mass and a closing speech by the pope.
Zollner said the pope’s reform plans — whose release seemed a surprise for more than one bishop — “will take some time” to be implemented.
While meetings continued, abuse survivors staged an afternoon “Global Twilight Vigil for Justice” by Castel Sant’Angelo, an ancient Roman landmark near St Peter’s Square.
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