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As historic summit on church sex abuse begins, critics say pope’s credibility is at risk

On Thursday, Pope Francis opens a historic four-day summit on clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church, following a year of explosive allegations from Catholic dioceses around the world. Although the pope has vowed not to tolerate misconduct or its concealment moving forward, critics say he isn’t doing enough -- and that his legacy is at risk. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow at the Vatican, a historic four-day summit begins on clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

    It follows a year packed with allegations from Catholic diocese around the world. Now fingers are also pointed squarely at Pope Francis. Victims and even high-ranking officials are accusing him of inaction.

    As special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Rome, the fallout is already tarnishing the legacy and credibility of the man many call the people's pope.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    These are the cries of survivors, cries of deaf men that went unheard for decades.

  • Alessandro Vantini:

    I was 6 years old. The priest led me into his room with candy. Then he sodomized me.

  • Gianni Bisoli:

    He raped me with a banana, then told me to take a Coca-Cola.

  • Pier Paolo Zanatta:

    It was in the confessional. He made me undress, then molested me.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    As children, they attended the Catholic-run Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf in Verona in Northern Italy. They're among 67 former students who allege that clergy physically and sexually abused minors there from the 1950s through the 1980s.

  • Alessandro Vantini:

    I cried for help, but everyone was deaf. No one could hear my screams.

  • Gianni Bisoli:

    Nothing ever happened to them. The pope has never done anything.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    As a young boy, Gianni Bisoli alleges that one of his aggressor's wasn't just a cleric, but the late bishop of Verona, Giuseppe Carraro.

    This is the same path where Gianni Bisoli remembers walking as a young boy, the same path to the bishop's residence. Now that same bishop is on a path to sainthood, thanks in part to Pope Francis.

    A probe by the Verona Diocese failed to interview any of the alleged victims, but cleared the late bishop anyway. And in 2015, Pope Francis signed a decree of heroic virtue on his behalf, a step towards sainthood.

    Pope Francis has vowed repeatedly to take sex abuse seriously, as he reiterated last September.

  • Pope Francis:

    Even if it were just one priest abusing a little boy or girl, that is monstrous.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    But there are many, many more victims, and the pope has appeared off-balance in his defense of them. Last year, in Chile, Francis publicly dismissed accusations that bishop Juan Barros witnessed sexual abuse of minors by a priest as calumny.

    Following an outcry of victims, the pope apologized last May, and accepted Barros' resignation in June. In one explosive case, Francis was accused by an archbishop of ignoring the past sexual misconduct of the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick.

    Last week, Pope Francis defrocked him, issuing his most severe punishment yet in the clerical sex abuse scandals. But critics say it may be too little, too late, both for the credibility of the church and Francis' pontificate.

    Victims of sexual abuse say the Vatican has hidden behind these walls, when they should have been cracking down on predator priests. Now some say that same inaction could lead to the undoing of Pope Francis' legacy, and maybe even his papacy.

    Edward Pentin is the Rome correspondent for The National Catholic Register, the oldest national Catholic daily in the U.S.

  • Edward Pentin:

    Well, this has been rumored. It's a recent rumor that perhaps he will resign because of this, or maybe time it with the summit to resign.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Only a rumor, but, in the notoriously secretive monarchy that is the Vatican, rumors have currency. And the fact that a possible papal abdication is even being uttered at the Holy See speaks to the pressure under which this pontiff finds himself.

  • Edward Pentin:

    But I think it will depend on how much he is willing listen to his critics. And this hasn't been a great attribute of his in the past. He doesn't seem to like listening to his critics. He doesn't like being corrected.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Francis needs to admit wrongdoing, says Robert Mickens, a veteran Vatican watcher.

  • Robert Mickens:

    It took him over a year-and-a-half before he even mentioned sex abuse. I think — really believe the pope has to come clean on this, and say, I made a mistake. I too was negligent.

    And I think he has the credibility to do that in a convincing way that could help change this.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Archbishop Charles Scicluna is the Vatican's former chief sex crimes prosecutor, and a key organizer of the conference. He says it will include some 200 church leaders from around the world, as well as abuse survivors and the pope at all plenary Sessions.

  • Charles Scicluna:

    I think we need, as the pope said, to come to awareness as church leaders that things have to change, that people have to be empowered to disclose abuse, and we are accountable when we come to address misconduct where it happens.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Does that mean defrocking members of the clergy? Does that mean turning them over to civil authorities?

  • Charles Scicluna:

    So, every allegation has to be taken seriously. Every allegation has to be investigated. Mandatory reporting laws, according to domestic law available, have to be followed.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Christopher Livesay:

    So, cooperating with local authorities?

  • Charles Scicluna:

    Absolutely.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Scicluna says the church in the U.S. has come a long way since abuse and cover-up scandals erupted within the Boston Archdiocese, prompting the resignation of then Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002.

    But, globally, he says, church leaders need to do more. Here in Italy, the Vatican's own backyard, clergy have been slow to even recognize abuse.

    Are there really still church leaders who still don't recognize that sex abuse is a problem in the church?

  • Charles Scicluna:

    This is not about the United States of America. It's about the Catholic Church. But we understand that the United States is a leader in child protection, and there are things that I think the Catholic Church around the world looks to learn from the United States.

    Pope Francis is on the record on a number of occasions expressing a determination to address the issue.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Is Pope Francis going to resign?

  • Charles Scicluna:

    I think the only person who knows that is Pope Francis. So, you had better ask him.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Just this month, Pope Francis acknowledged more instances of abuse in the church, this time against nuns.

  • Pope Francis:

    There are some priests and also bishops who have done it. And I think that it's continuing because it's not like, once you realize it, that it stops. It continues. And for some time, we have been working on it.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    One more crisis before a conference that sets big expectations.

    Survivors like Pier Paolo Zanatta hope the conference will spark meaningful change and consequences.

  • Pier Paolo Zanatta:

    Francis must use the event to kick out every last predator priest, defrock them and kick them out, cardinals, bishops, priests, everyone.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    And if he doesn't?

  • Pier Paolo Zanatta:

    Then people won't believe in the church anymore.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome.

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