The pontiff will dedicate the next three and a half days to discussing the Church's response to child abuse by members of the clergy with bishops from around the world.
“The holy people of God looks to us, and expects from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete,” he said as the summit opened, the first of its kind.
“Hear the cry of the little ones who plead for justice.”
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The ongoing scandal has again escalated in a crisis which has touched many countries across the globe, with recent cases affecting Chile, Germany and the US.
The 82-year-old pontiff hopes to raise awareness about abuse through prayers, speeches, working groups and testimonies from victims. He said the summit was a moment to “turn this evil into an opportunity for awareness and purification” and “heal the grave wounds that the scandal of paedophilia has caused, both in the little ones and in believers”.
Those gathered heard from unnamed abuse survivors, one of whom told them: “You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith”.
Another described the horrors of being forced to undergo three abortions after being abused by a priest.
Survivors of child abuse by clergy stand outside St Peter's Square ahead of this week's summit. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
“We humbly and sorrowfully admit that wounds have been inflicted by us bishops on the victims and in fact the entire body of Christ,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told the assembly.
“Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people, leaving a deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve,” he said.
The summit aims to educate 114 top bishops who will then return home with clear ideas on how to spot and deal with abuse and paedophilia. The scale of the task has been further complicated by the fact that some churches, in Asia and Africa in particular, deny the problem exists.
“My hope would be that people see this as a turning point,” said American Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the pope's trusted allies in the United States and one of the summit's four organisers.
The US Catholic Church has been shaken by one of the gravest crises in its history, following last week's defrocking of a former cardinal — American Theodore McCarrick — over accusations he sexually abused a teenager 50 years ago.
Theodore McCarrick in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/AFP
'Silence a no-go'
“It's not the end game, no one can ever say that… (but) we're going to do everything possible so people are held responsible, accountable and that there is going to be transparency,” Cupich told journalists said ahead of the meeting.
These three themes — responsibility, accountability and transparency — will form the backbone of the summit and provide its 190 participants with the keys to ensuring child safety, he said.
There are reforms in the pipeline, such as the “tweaking” of certain canon laws, according to another of the organisers, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna.
But the suggestion that Church laws need only fine-tuning has angered many, including Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a public database that documents cases of proven or suspected cleric sex crimes.
Protesters in Rome earlier this week denounced the “wall of silence” surrounding abuse in the Church. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
“Canon law has to be changed: not tweaked, not modified, but fundamentally changed, so that it stops prioritising the priesthood… over the lives of children, and vulnerable adults who are sexually assaulted by them,” she said.
Scicluna insists that summoning Church leaders from all continents to Rome “is in itself a very important message”.
He spent ten years as the Vatican's top prosecutor on paedophilia cases, and was picked by Francis to travel to Chile last year to hear from victims whose voices had previously been silenced by an internal Church cover-up. Scicluna has called for an end to the code of silence and culture of denial within the centuries-old institution.
“Silence is a no-go, whether you call it omerta or simply a state of denial,” he said this week. “We have to face facts because only the truth of the matter, and confronting the facts, will make us free.”