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The Vatican is hosting a major summit on its response to child abuse, but what does it hope to achieve?

The meeting takes place from 21-24 February.

The head of every bishops' conference has been called to Rome for the summit.
The head of every bishops' conference has been called to Rome for the summit.
Image: Vandeville Eric/ABACA

STARTING ON THURSDAY, the Vatican is hosting a major summit on its response to child sexual abuse.

The meeting comes amid a stream of recent revelations about abuse that have included countries like Ireland, the USA, Chile and Australia. 

In September, Francis summoned the heads of every bishops’ conference to discuss the issue.

Francis has confirmed that he will be attending the summit along with an expected 180 participants, including the presidents of 113 bishop conferences from around the world.

Archbishop Eamon Martin is attending the summit as president of the Irish Episcopal Conference and has met with survivors ahead of his trip to Rome. 

Martin also recently published an open letter to Irish Catholics in which he sought their feedback on how they felt about the issue about clerical sex abuse. 

In the open letter, Martin acknowledged that there had been “a lack of adequate response by the Church in dealing with child sexual abuse”.

On the summit itself, The Vatican has said that it is being organised to give bishops “concrete guidelines for preventing and reporting abuse”

“This will be an unprecedented occasion to face the problem and really find the concrete measures so that when the bishops will come back from Rome to their dioceses, they will be able to face this terrible plague,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti  has said. 

Pope Francis has said that the meeting is being held as “a further step in the church’s efforts to shed full light on the facts and to alleviate the wounds caused by such crimes”.

The attendance of Francis at the summit and the number of bishops attending has caused significant interest, so much so that the pontiff has sought to dampen expectations about what will come from it.

“I permit myself to say that I’ve perceived a bit of an inflated expectation,” Francis told reporters last last month. “We need to deflate the expectations.” 

Much is as yet unknown about what exactly is to be discussed at the summit but some religious news outlets have published some details. 

Catholic Church-focused news website Crux reports that survivors have been invited to attend the summit but that they have not been made public.

It also says that the each day of the three-day summit is to have a particular focus, “responsibility, accountability and transparency”.

Crux also reported that a communique issued by the planning committee said the meeting,

will include plenary sessions, working groups, moments of common prayer and listening to testimonies, a penitential liturgy and a final Eucharistic celebration.

Papal Visit to Ireland 2018 Pope Francis during his parade through Dublin city. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

The response to revelations of abuse in churches across the world has become a central issue for Francis’ papacy. 

Much of the pontiff’s visit to Ireland last year was dominated by the church’s response to abuses, with Francis not making a direct apology in one of his first speeches here and then asking for forgiveness in another speech the following day

In a visit to Panama last month similar happened, with Pope Francis’ not initially mentioning abuses before making reference to them towards the end of his visit. 

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In that instance, Pope Francis referred to clerical sex abuse as “a horrible crime.”

Asked about the timing of such references, a Vatican spokesperson said that the issue of clerical abuse is “very, very present” for Pope Francis but that it is “not necessary” that he addresses them in each meeting with bishops. 

Writing earlier this month in a submission ahead of next week’s meeting, Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins said that the Catholic Church needed to agree on a clear definition of what constitutes sexual abuse of a minor and a clear definition of the term “zero tolerance”. 

“The meaning of “zero tolerance” is taken by the laity to mean that any member of the clergy found to be guilty of abusing a minor will be removed from the clerical state. However those church leaders who give it any attention argue about what level of abuse is acceptable before zero tolerance is applied while others ignore it,” Collins wrote. 

Collins added that she discussed the issue of accountability with Francis during his visit last year and that he stressed that a process was in place to deal with it. 

Collins said that confusion exists as to what exactly this process is and added that this week’s summit could bring additional clarity. 

“This meeting of global representatives of episcopal conferences would be an excellent opportunity for it to be clearly explained and made public,” she said. 

- With reporting by © – AFP 2019

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Rónán Duffy

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