Jason Horowitz

c.2019 New York Times News Service

VATICAN CITY — With his moral authority in question and his papal legacy in the balance, Pope Francis opened a historic summit meeting at the Vatican on Thursday devoted to clerical child sexual abuse, an issue that has for decades devastated some corners of his vast church while being utterly ignored and denied in others.

“We hear the cry of the little ones asking for justice,” Francis told the 190 leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who had assembled from around the world in the Vatican’s Synod Hall at the start of a four-day conference intended to instruct them on the depth and universality of the problem and how to deal with it.

“The holy people of God look to us and expect from us not simple and obvious condemnations, but concrete and effective measures,” Francis said.

Survivors of clerical abuse, their advocates and faithful disheartened and disgusted by the failure to address the abuses are demanding that the church enshrine in Canon Law a policy of zero tolerance for abusive priests and the bishops who cover for them.

That is unlikely to happen at this week’s gathering. Instead Francis has made it clear that he intends the meeting to be a “catechesis” to educate bishops and religious leaders so they can undergo a conversion of spirit on the severity of the crisis.

At Thursday’s session that education included pre-recorded video testimonials from abuse survivors, including one who was impregnated three times by a priest and forced to have abortions and another who spoke of being abused hundreds of times.

“Victims need to be believed,” one pleaded by video, urging bishops to collaborate with civil authorities.

Many bishops have long denied that clerical sex abuse of minors was a problem, or suggested that it exists only in the Western or Anglo-Saxon world, or is a result of homosexuality in the church, a contention discredited by most scientific studies.

The church leaders arrived against a backdrop of feverishly high expectations from abuse survivors. Many former victims descended on Rome to meet with the church’s leading officials on the issue.

But they were also there to march, protest and make their anger known to the news media.