LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Investigations into child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests took a highly public turn last year. State prosecutors took the novel step of releasing the names of hundreds of accused priests, as well as those who covered up their crimes. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the revelations and the church's response severely damaged the church's credibility and Pope Francis's reputation. In response, he has called for an extraordinary four-day summit on sex abuse next month.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Vatican acting spokesman Alessandro Gisotti recently told reporters the summit's goal is that bishops understand that clerical sex abuse is a global problem that needs a global response. He added, Pope Francis insists that when the bishops return home...
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ALESSANDRO GISOTTI: They understand the laws to be applied and that they take the necessary steps to prevent abuse, to care for the victims and to make sure that no case is covered up or buried.
POGGIOLI: With high expectations, the summit could be as big a media event as a papal conclave. This prompted a Vatican editorial claiming the media hype is excessive. Participants will include the presidents of the world's nearly 130 bishops' conferences, abuse survivors and experts. Francis will attend all plenary sessions, working groups, witness testimony, penitential service and final Mass. Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University, speaking over Skype, says the summit should produce global guidelines.
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: Setting universal standards that all churches have to implement.
POGGIOLI: Francis announced the summit in September as his papacy reeled over botched handling of abuse cases. And he was accused of ignoring in the past sexual misconduct by disgraced former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, currently under Vatican investigation. Philip Pullella, veteran Vatican correspondent for the Reuters news agency, says the pope could take an important step even before the summit begins.
PHILIP PULLELLA: There's a very good possibility that ex-Cardinal McCarrick will be further disciplined. You know, there's a very good possibility that he will be defrocked. And that will send a strong signal.
POGGIOLI: Should that happen, McCarrick, once an important powerbroker as archbishop of Washington, D.C., would become the highest-profile figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Australia and in France have taken bold steps against church officials, putting bishops on trial for failing to report clerical abuse of minors.
ANNE BARRETT DOYLE: There is now a worldwide movement by prosecutors and legislators and an outraged public to treat the church like ordinary citizens.
POGGIOLI: Anne Barrett Doyle is co-director of Bishop Accountability, an online research group that tracks clerical abuse cases around the world. Speaking over Skype, she says centuries of secrecy to shield the church from secular law gave its leaders a sense of impunity.
BARRETT DOYLE: That illusion that they are still untouchable will probably persist until a bishop ends up behind bars for covering up. And that day may not be far away.
POGGIOLI: Activists like Barrett Doyle and abuse survivors want the Vatican to implement what it has always avoided - accountability, that officials who knew but looked away while predator priests committed crimes abusing minors be finally brought to justice. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.