Pope Francis urged high-ranking church officials from around the globe gathered Thursday at the Vatican to "hear the cry of the little ones" who are victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Francis spoke at the beginning of a four-day summit that brought together almost 200 high-ranking church officials, including leaders of bishop conferences from more than 100 nations. The summit will focus on making bishops aware of their responsibilities regarding sexual abuse, as well as accountability and transparency, the Vatican said.
The pope cited the "scourge" of sexual abuse and said it was the responsibility of church leaders to "confront this evil afflicting the Church and humanity."
Francis offered 21 proposals for the clergy to weigh. Some would require new laws; others would be easier to adopt.
"The holy people of God look to us and expect from us not simple and predictable condemnations but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken," he said. "We need to be concrete."
The summit began with an African woman who was not identified recounting how her priest raped her and forced her to have three abortions over a dozen years after he started violating her at age 15.
It ended with Colombian Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez warning the clergy that they could all face prison if they let such crimes go unpunished.
Last week, 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.
Experts said McCarrick's case sends an important signal that even cardinals and powerful archbishops will be held accountable.
More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the USA, bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after drawing sharp criticism for his handling of a wide-ranging sex abuse coverup case in Chile last year. He vowed to demand accountability from church leadership.
Among the proposals Francis offered were protocols for accusations against bishops – a reference to the McCarrick scandal – and directions for transferring seminarians or priests to prevent predators from moving freely among parishes.
Tuesday, two groups representing the leadership of Catholic religious orders apologized for their failure to quickly act to halt sexual abuse.
"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.
Abuse survivors came to Rome to demand accountability, and organizers of the summit met with some of them Wednesday.
Phil Saviano, who helped expose the U.S. abuse scandal by priests two decades ago, demanded that the Vatican release the names of abusers and their files.
“Do it to break the code of silence,” he told the organizing committee on the eve of the summit. “Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Hear the cry of the little ones': Pope Francis demands action from bishops as sex abuse summit opens