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Pope Meets With Church Leaders Amid New Sex Abuse Allegations


At the Vatican today, Pope Francis met with a delegation of U.S. Catholic Church leaders to discuss the fallout from continuing reports of clerical sex abuse. This crisis is the most serious of the Francis papacy, and it has led many Catholics to lose confidence in church leadership.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome and joins us now. Hi, Sylvia.


SHAPIRO: Do you know what happened in today's meeting?

POGGIOLI: Well, we know very little. The Vatican only released two photos that showed the pope with the president of the U.S. Bishops Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who's the pope's adviser on protection of minors, and two conference officials. Several hours later, DiNardo issued a statement saying, we shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States - how the body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse. We look forward to identifying together the most effective next steps.

DiNardo had asked for the papal audience after the Pennsylvania grand jury report revealed decades of abuse by hundreds of priests. And there was the shocking demotion of Theodore McCarrick as cardinal. And then there was this bombshell letter by a former Vatican diplomat who accused Pope Francis and other Vatican officials of having basically covered up for McCarrick for many years.

SHAPIRO: And about the same time as this meeting, there was another development in the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church - the resignation of a U.S. bishop. Tell us about that.

POGGIOLI: Well, yeah. Just as the delegation was sitting down in the pope's study, the Vatican issued a statement that said that Pope Francis had ordered an investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct by West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and had accepted his resignation. And then we heard that Baltimore Bishop William Lori was appointed to take over temporarily and was instructed to conduct the investigation that Bransfield sexually harassed adults. And then there's also that DiNardo's own record has been put in question. An AP story reported last night that two victims accused the Houston cardinal of not stopping a priest who was arrested last week on abuse charges.

SHAPIRO: And this problem goes far beyond the U.S. It's all over the world. The pope announced yesterday he's summoning the heads of all national bishops' conferences to Rome in February to talk about protecting minors. After a lot of foot dragging by officials, could this be a turning point in how the church handles sexual abuse?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, I think Francis is very well aware the legacy of his papacy is at stake over this issue. And so he is really calling an unprecedented meeting on this topic. There'll probably be more than a hundred bishops in Rome. You know, we saw today the revelations are pouring in from all over the world. Yesterday in Germany, media reported that a church-commissioned study revealed that some 1,700 clerics abused nearly 4,000 minors over a period of 70 years.

Then there have been the other big scandals this year in Chile and Australia. You know, Pope Francis has been accused of talking the talk but not really taking concrete steps to punish and hold bishops accountable for cover-ups and to promote transparency in the process. But, you know, he's encountered an awful lot of resistance from inside the Vatican. I'm going to give you an example of a cynical mindset that's very prevalent here.

The other day, an Italian professor of theology at a Vatican-sponsored university said this to me about clerical sex abuse - it has always happened, and the Catholic Church is still here after 2,000 years. So I think Francis hopes that by bringing bishops from all over the world for a brainstorming session on sex abuse he can counter that kind of entrenched resistance to change.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.