Ireland’s Roman Catholic bishops are being summoned next month to an exceptional Vatican summit with Pope Benedict XVI to shape the pontiff’s response to child-abuse scandals, church officials said Wednesday.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, confirmed that the pope has written to Ireland’s bishops inviting them to the Vatican on Feb. 15-16, but he declined to provide any other details.
Two Irish church officials said the pope planned to speak both as a group and individually to Ireland’s bishops, archbishops and Cardinal Sean Brady.
They said the dialogue would influence Benedict’s planned pastoral letter to Ireland’s 4 million Catholics following revelations of widespread child abuse within the Irish church.
Both officials asked not to be identified because the Vatican is supposed to make all announcements about the meeting.
Normally, bishops gain a papal audience only once every five years. The precedent for such a gathering is Pope John Paul II’s summit with U.S. cardinals in 2002 following exposure of a wave of child-abuse scandals in the American priesthood.
Irish government-ordered investigations published last year documented decades of Catholic cover-ups of child abuse within the Dublin Archdiocese, as well as the church’s network of residences for troubled Irish boys and girls.
The Dublin report, published in November, examined the cases of 46 priests who molested or raped children — and why bishops told police nothing about any cases until 1995 when the first victims began pursuing civil lawsuits.
It also documented how police and other state child-welfare officials treated Catholic officials with deference, ensuring that the church could protect pedophile clergy.
May’s published report on Catholic-run orphanages, residential schools and workhouses nationwide found that Catholic brothers and nuns engaged in systemic physical, mental and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children from the 1930s to 1990s, when the last of the institutions closed.
Both reports found that officials kept abuse cases secret to protect the church’s reputation. A taxpayer-funded commission has already paid out nearly $1.4 billion to more than 12,000 surviving residents of the children’s homes, while the Dublin Archdiocese estimates it could pay out more than $30 million to settle lawsuits.
Four bishops implicated in the Dublin report last month announced their resignations for failing to tell police about abuse cases. But Benedict has confirmed only the departure of Bishop Donal Murray of Limerick.
The other three — bishops Raymond Field, Jim Moriarty and Eamonn Walsh — remain in office pending the pope’s acceptance of their resignations and could take part in the Vatican meeting.
Before that, the Irish Conference of Bishops announced a meeting Friday at Maynooth, the only remaining Catholic seminary in the Republic of Ireland, to discuss the fallout from the Dublin report and their upcoming audience with the pope.