A crucial summit on clergy sexual abuse, which opens Thursday at the Vatican, will draw church leaders from around the world in an effort to break a "code of silence" that allowed the misconduct to take place over decades.
Presidents of more than 100 bishop conferences will be joined by high-ranking Vatican officials – and Pope Francis himself. The summit will focus on making bishops aware of their responsibilities, accountability and transparency, the Vatican said.
Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a member of the organizing committee, described the summit as a major step in the pope's efforts to end the code of silence. The Rev. James Bretzke, a theology professor at Marquette University, said the pope demands a change in "clerical culture."
"The pope is saying this isn't just a problem for the United States or Europe or elsewhere," Bretzke told USA TODAY. "The problem is the clerical culture that looks to protect the institution even at the expense of individuals who have been harmed."
Wednesday, a dozen victims of clergy sexual abuse met with summit organizers. Chilean abuse victim Juan Carlos Cruz, who is coordinating a meeting, said his group urged bishops to stop pleading ignorance about abuse.
Bishops have known “raping a child or a vulnerable person and abusing them has been wrong since the first century, the Middle Ages and now,” he said.
John Thavis, a former Catholic News Service reporter and author of "The Vatican Diaries," said the bishops had to hear "some very direct criticism of their past failures."
Thavis said the true effectiveness of the summit will be determined by follow-up actions over the next year or so "if and when the Vatican sends teams of auditors around the world to make sure that the summit's conclusions are being implemented."
Tuesday, two groups representing the leadership of Catholic religious orders apologized for their failure to quickly act to halt sexual abuse of children by priests.
"We bow our heads in shame at the realization that such abuse has taken place in our congregations and orders, and in our church," said the statement from the Union of Superiors General and its female counterpart, the International Union of Superiors General.
The statement said the groups' members, including more than 100,000 priests and more than 500,000 religious sisters around the world, understand that abusers are manipulative and deliberately hide their actions. Leaders failed to see or take seriously the warning signs of abuse, the statement said.
"We acknowledge that there was an inadequate attempt to deal with this issue and a shameful lack of capacity to understand your pain," the statement said. "We offer our sincerest apologies and our sorrow. ... We invite you to work with us to put in place new structures to ensure that the risks are minimized."
Last week, Pope Francis defrocked former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 88, after Vatican officials found him guilty of sex crimes against minors and adults. McCarrick is the most senior Catholic official to be defrocked for such crimes.
Thavis said McCarrick's case sends an important signal that even cardinals and powerful archbishops will be held accountable.
"Unfortunately, the McCarrick case is also an example of just how long it has taken the church to face facts when it comes to sexual abuse," Thavis said. "And it highlights the unresolved question of accountability for bishops who have moved abusive priests around and hidden these facts from the Catholic faithful."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The stakes are high for Pope Francis, Catholics worldwide in unprecedented sex abuse summit