[VATICAN CITY] Pope Francis opened a historic summit meeting Thursday morning devoted to the scourge of child sexual abuse, an issue that has for decades devastated and eroded faith in some corners of his vast church while being utterly ignored and denied in others.
"We hear the cry of the little ones asking for justice," he said. "The holy people of God look to us and expect from us not simple and obvious condemnations, but concrete and effective measures."
Bringing together church leaders from around the world at the Vatican, Pope Francis said that the church was obliged to discuss the extent to which abuse was afflicting the church and humanity in a "sincere and in-depth manner."
The pope called the meeting to educate the pastors of his global flock, and he has made it clear that he intends it to be a "catechesis," meaning that all of the bishops and religious leaders could undergo a conversion of spirit and truly understand the depth and universality of the problem.
Many bishops believe that clerical sex abuse of children only exists in the Western or Anglo-Saxon world or is a result of homosexuality in the church, a contention discredited by most scientific studies.
Survivors of clerical abuse, their advocates and faithful disheartened and disgusted by the church's failure to find an antidote to the poison coursing through it say that the church could begin to fix the problem only by enshrining in Canon Law a policy of zero tolerance for abusive priests and the bishops who cover for them.
Speaking in the Vatican's Synod Hall, Pope Francis addressed the 190 church leaders, including the presidents of many of the world's bishops' conferences, men's and women's religious orders and powerful cardinals from his committee of top advisers.
All of them rose to sing off the same prayer sheet and listened to the Rev Hans Zollner - an organizer of the meeting, member of the Vatican's child-protection commission and president of the Center for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University - read testimony from an unnamed victim who lamented being ignored by the church leaders.
"They didn't listen to me and my cry," Rev Zollner said, reading from the testimony, followed by a long and haunting silence.
Minutes earlier, the last bishops, wearing their black cassocks and red sashes and skullcaps, made their way across St Peter's Square in the clear morning light.
They came amid a backdrop of feverishly high expectations from abuse survivors, many of whom had descended on Rome to meet with the church's leading officials on the issue.
But they were also there to march, protest and make their anger known to the news media, reflecting the frustration with the Vatican's inability to confront - and in many parts of the world, even acknowledge - a problem that has devoured the church from within for decades now.
Advocates for other victims of abuse and secrecy in the church, including for the children of priests and for nuns raped by clerics, were also there. They are meeting with church leaders and giving an endless stream of interviews to an army of journalists from around the world who are demonstrating more interest in the Vatican than in perhaps any time since the conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013.
The meeting on Thursday will focus on the responsibilities of church leaders, many of whom are still not exactly sure what to do when confronted with accusations of abuse by priests. The theme on Friday is accountability, something that advocates for victims have charged is sorely missing among the church leadership - an accusation that church officials have acknowledged has merit.
Friday will also focus on transparency in addressing the problem, and the church has made much out of its plans to live stream part of the meeting on the internet.
They first presentation on Thursday will be given by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, of the Philippines, widely considered a contender to be the next pope, even as he has come under criticism from victims' groups for his apparent lack of commitment to zero-tolerance policies.
His talk - titled "Smell of the Sheep: Knowing their pain and healing their wounds is at the heart of the shepherd's task" - will be followed by questions and working groups.
"Wounds have been inflicted by us bishops" on the faithful, Cardinal Tagle said. He said that the lack of response from church leaders, and the efforts to cover up scandals to protect abusers and the church, had injured its people.
In his own opening remarks, Pope Francis again made clear that this was a priority for his church, but also for the legacy of his pontificate. "We need concreteness," he said, adding that guidelines were helpful but "we don't want to lose the creativity."