ROME - Alarmed by sexual abuse scandals in a number of countries, Pope Francis is summoning senior bishops to a meeting early next year to discuss the prevention of abuse by Roman Catholic clerics and the protection of children, the Vatican announced Wednesday.
The meeting of the heads of national bishops' conferences from around the world is scheduled for Feb. 21-24 at the Vatican, a spokeswoman said.
The extraordinary conclave was announced a day before the pope is to meet with leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church to discuss some of the latest scandals, including a grand jury report from Pennsylvania that found that more than 300 priests had sexually abused minors in the state over seven decades.
In addition, the Vatican has been rocked by an archbishop's accusations that the pope knew for years about alleged sexual misconduct by a top American cardinal but took no action. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was accused of molesting and harassing adult seminarians.
Abuse scandals have also shaken the Catholic Church in Chile and Australia, among other countries.
The planned Vatican meeting is believed to be unprecedented, indicating that the church recognizes that clergy sex abuse is a global problem.
Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who has faced mounting calls for his resignation over his handling of sexual abuse cases, wrote on Tuesday that he will soon discuss with Pope Francis the possibility of stepping down as leader of Washington’s Catholic Church.
Wuerl did not say in his letter to priests whether he will ask Francis to accept his resignation, which he submitted three years ago at the customary retirement age of 75. But he acknowledged that many among the faithful have questions about their bishops' ability to lead them to healing due to the huge sexual-abuse crisis in the church, and said he would be discussing his resignation with the pope.
"At issue is how to begin effectively to bring a new level of healing to survivors who have personally suffered so much and to the faithful entrusted to our care who have also been wounded by the shame of these terrible actions and have questions about their bishop's ability to provide the necessary leadership," Wuerl wrote to the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Wuerl has already visited the Vatican since the release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania, which revealed allegations of abuse by more than 300 priests across the states and called into question Wuerl's own conduct as a supervisor of priests when he was bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years, before coming to lead Washington's prominent archdiocese in 2006. When Wuerl spoke with Francis at the end of August, the pope told him to consult his priests about what he should do - and Wuerl did so at an annual Labor Day picnic for clergy, which he referred to in his letter on Tuesday.
"It was clear that some decision, sooner rather than later, on my part is an essential aspect so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward," he wrote. "As fruit of our discernment I intend, in the very near future, to go to Rome to meet with our Holy Father about the resignation I presented nearly three years ago, November 12, 2015."
Wuerl can ask to step down, but only the pope can accept the resignation of an archbishop. It is entirely up to Francis whether Wuerl continues in his job or retires.
Wuerl's letter, however, seemed to indicate he believes his retirement is somewhat likely; he closed by anticipating "a new beginning" for the church he serves.
Many in the archdiocese have asked Wuerl to step down in recent weeks, including more than 40 Catholic school teachers who protested outside their back-to-school Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine, and a highly visible deacon at St. Matthew's Cathedral, who said he would refuse to participate in the Mass with the cardinal.
Ed McFadden, Wuerl's spokesman, said Tuesday that Wuerl's letter is not an official resignation, but he noted the letter's call for a "new beginning." The main point of the letter, he said, was to tell Wuerl's priests that he had heard their feedback in recent days and was preparing to take the next step. "All he's saying is the discernment process has ended. And at some point in the future he'll meet with the Holy Father and discuss the resignation he submitted three years ago," McFadden said.
Wuerl has had trouble connecting with his flock since the topic of sex abuse exploded into view this summer. The day of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Wuerl published a website defending himself and praising his record on clergy abuse. Wuerl's staff and his defenders have repeatedly said he was ahead of his time in working in some cases to remove abusers from churches. But in other cases, he took the advice of mental health professionals who said priests accused of abuse were safe to return to work, and Wuerl let them remain in ministry.
Last week, Wuerl wrote to his priests to tell them he was organizing a six-week season of prayer and healing in response to the sex abuse crisis. But McFadden said Wuerl heard from some Catholics who were angry about the initiative because they viewed it as a ploy for Wuerl to buy more time in the job.
McFadden declined to offer any details about when Wuerl might go to Rome or when a final announcement could be made.
Wuerl is an ally of Francis and had been expected to stay in office for a few more years until his replacement was picked. The explosion of the abuse crisis in the United States this summer sped things up, and it is not clear who might replace him. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, New Orleans Bishop Gregory Aymond and Seattle Bishop Peter Sartain are among the names raised in public conversation earlier this summer, before the scandals hit. It's unclear whether Francis now has a new list of candidates.
McFadden declined to comment on what, specifically might have convinced Wuerl it was time for a change. He also declined to say when Wuerl might speak publicly on the issue.
Reporters Chico Harlan and William Branigin contributed.