ROME - Alarmed by sexual abuse scandals in multiple countries, Pope Francis is summoning senior bishops for a first-of-its-kind meeting early next year to discuss the prevention of abuse by Roman Catholic clerics and the protection of children, the Vatican announced Wednesday.
The announcement of the extraordinary conclave, scheduled for Feb. 21 to 24 at the Vatican, comes as Francis faces pressure to rectify the Vatican's slow-footed response to abuse and enact safeguards many Catholics say should have been created years earlier.
The latest series of abuse cases has highlighted failures by church authorities to punish accused abusers, and the Vatican has been dealing with allegations that many in its hierarchy - including Francis - ignored the sexual misconduct of a now-resigned cardinal, Theodore McCarrick.
The meeting was publicized one day before the pope is to meet with leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who has requested a Vatican-led investigation to account for how McCarrick climbed the ranks, becoming one of the world's most powerful cardinals, in the face of rumors about his sexual misconduct. Although McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July, some church leaders say it is critical to figure out who protected McCarrick, who became a cardinal in 2001 and served as archbishop of Washington from 2001 to 2006.
Abuse scandals have also shaken the Catholic Church in Chile, Australia and Ireland, among other countries. In the United States, a grand jury report released last month in Pennsylvania found that more than 300 priests had sexually abused minors in the state over seven decades.
The planned Vatican meeting is believed to be unprecedented, indicating that the church recognizes that clergy sex abuse is a global problem - even in countries where the church maintains strong social power and cases have not come to light in great numbers.
The Vatican announced the event after Francis met with his Council of Cardinals, his de facto cabinet. The meeting in February will bring together the heads of all national bishops' conferences, from more than 100 countries.
Within a divided church, Francis figures to face scrutiny not only over the agenda for the February event but over how he navigates more-immediate decisions - including the handling of the McCarrick investigation, which could point fingers back to members of the Vatican hierarchy.
Francis has not responded directly to the accusations that he was told of McCarrick's misconduct in 2013, but the Vatican said Monday that "clarifications" would be forthcoming. The accusations were levied in a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who called on Francis to resign. Cardinals mentioned in Viganò's letter have declined repeated requests to comment.
Francis' "credibility is under threat," said Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican watcher. "And thus he needs a strong action."
The Vatican's statement Wednesday did not set out what the agenda might look like in February. Victims groups have for years said the Vatican needs to better address how to deal with prelates who cover up abuse and how to ensure that abuse victims have a clear way to report what has happened to them. Protocols for dealing with abuse in the church vary from country to country.
Last month, in a letter to the world's Catholics, Francis said the church must prevent sexual abuse from being "covered up and perpetuated." But within the church, Francis's stance on the underlying problem has been contested.
While Francis has often talked about sexual crimes as an abuse of power, some conservatives say the pope has downplayed the role of homosexuality among priests while at the same time signaling a more inclusive stance toward gays within the church.
Teresa Kettelkamp, a member of Francis' advisory committee on sexual abuse, said it will be important for the February meeting to feature survivors of abuse, so church leaders can better understand the hurdles victims face in reporting cases and why they sometimes need years, even decades, to come forward.
"It's about understanding the victims," Kettelkamp said, "knowing who we serve."
Others remained skeptical that the conclave would yield significant changes, noting that Francis has made other dramatic announcements with no follow-up. In 2015, the Vatican said it would set up a tribunal for judging bishops accused of negligence or coverups; it was never created.
Francis has taken action against some prelates accused of protecting abusers, most notably accepting resignations from bishops in Chile. He has also spent time speaking with abuse victims at the Vatican and during overseas trips. But some of the cases around the world have come to light because of a growing willingness by prosecutors and legal authorities to target the church. After the Pennsylvania grand jury report, several states have announced their own investigations, potentially requiring dioceses to open up their secret files.
"There's absolutely no reason to think any good will come of such a meeting," said David Clohessy, a former director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests who noted that the work of whistleblowers, investigators and journalists was a better way to expose wrongdoing and end coverups. "Catholic officials have had decades to reform. To an overwhelming degree, they haven't and they won't."
The Catholic Church is hosting another major meeting next month, on the subject of youth. Francis had faced several calls to cancel the October meeting, known as a synod, or change the agenda to directly address abuse.
Some experts said Wednesday that the February timing probably reflected Francis's preference to carefully plan the event, rather than pull it together on an emergency basis. Some bishops' conferences, including in the United States, also hold their own major meetings toward the end of the year, adding to the scheduling difficulties.
"If they're putting this off, planning it for five months, it better not just be more talking," said Peter Isely, a founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse, a global survivors and activists group. "There's this disconnect between how grave this is and then this pace with which they move."
This article was written by Chico Harlan, a reporter for The Washington Post. The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.