VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has summoned bishops from around the world to Rome for an unprecedented meeting focused on protecting minors, the Vatican announced on Wednesday, as the pontiff wrestles with a global clerical sexual abuse crisis and explosive accusations of a cover-up that have shaken his papacy and the entire Roman Catholic Church.
The pope called the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to gather from Feb. 21 to 24, according to the Vatican, which added that he had “amply reflected” on the issue with his top council of cardinal advisers during three days of meetings that ended on Wednesday. It would be the first global gathering of church leaders to discuss the crisis.
The announcement came on the eve of a meeting in the Vatican on Thursday between the pope and a group of leading bishops from the United States. They are seeking answers from the pope and a full investigation into why one of their most prominent colleagues was allowed to ascend to a top position in the American church, despite allegations that he had sexually abused seminarians.
Reports of misconduct by that prelate, Theodore E. McCarrick,a former archbishop of Washington, D.C., led to his resignation as cardinal.
His successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, revealed on Tuesday that he planned to discuss his resignation with Francis. The cardinal, formerly the archbishop of Pittsburgh, has faced withering criticism since the release last month of a grand jury report saying that more than 1,000 children had been victimized over decades in Pennsylvania, and that church leaders had covered it up.
The case of Cardinal McCarrick continues to shake the church, after a bombshell letter by the formal Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accusing Francis of lifting sanctions against the American that had been put in place by Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
Since Archbishop Viganò published his letter and called for Francis’ resignation late last month, reports have cast doubt on whether Benedict formally penalized Cardinal McCarrick, and have shown that the Vatican knew about the American’s practice of inviting seminarians into his bed since 2000.
Neither Pope Francis nor former Pope Benedict, who is retired, has responded to the letter, which has opened up an ideological war inside the Vatican. Among the American church leaders scheduled to meet the pope on Thursday to discuss the matter are Cardinal Wuerl; Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Francis’ leading adviser on the issue of sexual abuse.
Many survivors of abuse, and people who campaign on their behalf, have lamented that the letters and the power struggles they have uncorked in the Vatican have eclipsed the central issue of protecting children from abuse within the church.
The February meetings that Francis has called are intended to put the issue front and center again. For decades, abuse festered in the papacy of John Paul II, as many in the Vatican ignored accusations, which was portrayed as a problem of English-speaking countries fueled by anti-Catholic news outlets.
The sexual abuse crisis came into open view in 2002, forcing the Vatican to acknowledge an issue that has threatened its credibility around the world. Under John Paul, Benedict served as the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog, and personally read many of the files about clerical abuse. As pope, he cracked down on hundreds of priests.
But there were high hopes after the election of Francis in 2013 that he would tackle the systemic problem of abuse in the church by holding accountable the bishops who often covered it up. Francis has ordered the resignations of several bishops, but he ha failed to create a promised tribunal for holding negligent bishops accountable for covering up sexual crimes.
That has added fuel to the uproar over revelations in a grand jury report that more than 1,000 children had been victimized over decades in Pennsylvania, news accusations against Cardinal McCarrick, and the claims of Archbishop Vigano.
On Tuesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pope Benedict’s former personal secretary and closest adviser, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said at a book presentation: “The Catholic Church looks full of confusion at its own 9/11, at its own Sept. 11, even though this catastrophe isn’t associated with a single date, but rather at so many days and years, and innumerable victims.”
He added that the crisis, exposed again by the Pennsylvania grand jury report, demonstrated “how many souls have been wounded irrevocably and mortally by priests from the Catholic Church.”
Follow Jason Horowitz on Twitter: @jasondhorowitz.
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.