ROME (WASHINGTON POST) - Alarmed by sexual abuse scandals in a number of countries, Pope Francis is summoning senior bishops to a meeting early next year to discuss the prevention of abuse by Roman Catholic clerics and the protection of children, the Vatican announced on Wednesday (Sept 12).
The extraordinary meeting, scheduled for Feb 21-24 at the Vatican, marks the most concrete step the pontiff has taken in response to a series of abuse cases that have roiled the church and thrown Francis' papacy into crisis.
The latest cases have highlighted failures by church authorities to punish alleged abusers, and the Vatican in recent weeks has been dealing with allegations that many in its hierarchy - including Francis - ignored the sexual misconduct of a now-resigned US cardinal, Theodore McCarrick.
The meeting comes at a point when Francis is facing intense pressure to reverse the Vatican's slow-footed response to abuse and enact safeguards that many Catholics say should have been created years earlier.
The meeting was announced one day before the pope is to meet with leaders of the US Catholic Church, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who has requested a Vatican-led investigation that can account for how McCarrick climbed the ranks, becoming one of the world's most powerful cardinals, in the face of rumours about his sexual misconduct.
Although McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July, some church leaders say it is critical to figure out who protected McCarrick, who became a cardinal in 2001 and served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006.
Abuse scandals have also shaken the Catholic Church in Chile, Australia and Ireland, among other countries.
In the United States, a grand jury report released last month from Pennsylvania found that more than 300 priests had sexually abused minors in the state over seven decades.
The planned Vatican meeting is believed to be unprecedented, indicating that the church recognises that clergy sex abuse is a global problem - potentially even in non-Western countries where the church maintains strong social power and cases have not come to light in great numbers.
The Vatican announced the event after Francis met with his Council of Cardinals, his de facto Cabinet. The meeting in February will bring together the heads of all national bishops' conferences.
With a divided church, Francis figures to face scrutiny not only over the agenda for the February event, but on how he navigates more immediate decisions - including the handling of the McCarrick investigation, which could point fingers back to members of the Vatican hierarchy.
Francis has not responded directly to the accusations that he was told of McCarrick's misconduct in 2013, but the Vatican said Monday that "clarifications" would be forthcoming.
The accusations were levied in a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who called on Francis to resign. Cardinals mentioned in Vigano's letter have declined repeated requests to comment.
"(Francis') credibility is under threat," said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher. "And thus he needs a strong action."
The Vatican's statement on Wednesday did not set out what the agenda might look like in February. Victims' groups have long said that the Vatican needs to better address how to deal with prelates who cover up abuse, and how to ensure that abuse victims have a clear way to report what happens to them. Protocols for dealing with abuse in the church vary wildly from country to country.
Last month, in a letter to the world's Catholics, Francis said the church must prevent sexual abuse from being "covered up and perpetuated." But within the divided church, Francis' stance on the underlying reasons for abuse have been contested.
While Francis has often talked about sexual crimes as an abuse of power, some conservatives say the pope has downplayed the role of homosexuality among priests while instead signalling a slightly more inclusive stance about gays within the church.
Teresa Kettelkamp, a member of Francis' advisory committee on sexual abuse, said it will be important for the February meeting to feature survivors of abuse, so church leaders can better understand the hurdles they face in reporting cases, and why they sometimes need years, even decades, to come forward.
"It's about understanding the victims," Kettelkamp said. "Knowing who we serve."
Others remained sceptical that the meeting would yield significant changes, noting that Francis has made other dramatic announcements with no follow-up. In 2015, the Vatican said it would set up a tribunal for judging bishops accused of negligence or cover-up; it was never created.
Francis has taken action against some prelates accused of protecting abusers, most notably accepting resignations from bishops in Chile. He has also spent time speaking with abuse victims at the Vatican and during overseas trips.
But some of the cases around the world have come to light because of a growing willingness from prosecutors and legal authorities to target the church.
Following the Pennsylvania grand jury report, several states have announced their own investigations, potentially requiring dioceses to open up their secret files.
"There's absolutely no reason to think any good will come of such a meeting," said David Clohessy, the former director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who noted that the work of whistleblowers, investigators and journalists was a better way to expose wrongdoing and end cover-up.
"Catholic officials have had decades to reform. To an overwhelming degree, they haven't and they won't."