As U.S.-based Roman Catholic bishops gathered in suburban Mundelein for a weeklong retreat, activists in Chicago on Wednesday stood outside the Archdiocese of Chicago’s headquarters to slam church leadership for its handling of sexual abuse investigations.

The bishops planned to focus on prayer and spiritual reflection, and they would not spend the week formulating policy amid the church’s national sexual abuse scandal, according to organizers of the retreat. Outside the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Gold Coast offices, Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said recent movements like #MeToo have made people realize how common sexual violence is and also compelled them to confront the issue.

“And they are angry, they’re angry,” Hiner said. “The public at large is very far ahead of the Catholic Church on this issue, and if the Catholic Church does want to catch up, does want to ensure that this never happens again, they need to start talking to some of those survivors now.”

The bishop’s retreat, at Mundelein Seminary, began a day after The Associated Press reported that the Vatican blocked U.S. bishops from taking measures last year to address the scandal because U.S. church leaders didn’t discuss the legally problematic proposals with the Holy See enough beforehand.

The rebuke from Rome was contained in a letter from a Vatican official before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in November. The move stunned abuse survivors and some other Catholics demanding action.

The retreat is a prelude to a summit of the world’s bishops at the Vatican next month to forge a comprehensive response to the crisis that has lashed the church.

The meetings follow two blistering reports during 2018 from state attorneys general — in Illinois and Pennsylvania — alleging negligence by state church leaders.

Here’s a look at the retreat.

What’s on the agenda?

According to Archdiocese of Chicago spokeswoman Anne Maselli, bishops at the gathering would be praying, fasting and participating in spiritual lectures. And they were going to be alone: No staff members, other priests or members of the public or media are invited. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a news release that they were convening “to pray on the intense matters before us.”

Who are the main players?

Pope Francis has dispatched the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, the official papal preacher, to lead the retreat. And it’s no accident that it’s being held near Chicago, long considered a center of American Catholicism. The hosting Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich, was Francis’ first major U.S. appointment and was picked by the pope to help organize the Vatican summit.

Cupich, who is considered a moderate, was the lead signatory on a recent letter to bishops around the world warning that a failure to deal with abuse now will jeopardize the church’s mission globally. It also urged summit attendees to meet with clergy sexual abuse victims “to learn firsthand the suffering they have endured.”

What can it really accomplish?

Potentially a good deal, according to Notre Dame researcher and teacher Timothy O’Malley. He says one of Francis’ biggest concerns has been that the bishops experience a spiritual renewal — and “a spirit of penance” — along with regulations governing their behavior.

“When the bishops meet in public to discuss these procedures, there is a danger that it’s less an act of contrition and more an occasion for scoring political points,” he said. “Part of the corruption is based in a certain clerical culture where bishops pursued self-interest, whether their own or their diocese’s, at the expense of listening to lay victims. This retreat … is a first step toward a renewal of the (church leadership) as a whole in the United States.”

O’Malley added that it only works if they recognize that their office isn’t about accruing power but becoming “a shepherd,” or “someone who is willing to engage in self-sacrifice for the sake of the church.”

What are abuse victims and advocates saying about an upcoming Vatican summit?

Activists in Chicago were looking ahead to the February summit at the Vatican, where the church’s ongoing sexual abuse crisis is expected to be discussed. The activists are calling for victims to be more involved in the meetings and have been critical of Cupich’s involvement in the summit in light of the scathing report from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. Peter Isely, one of the activists, said a letter was sent to Pope Francis addressing these concerns.

“They may not include us in the discussion, but the world’s going to,” Isely said.

Patricia Gallagher Marchant, 61, of Milwaukee, said that she was abused as a child in 1965 in Wisconsin and that she told church leaders about what happened in the early 1990s. After coming forward, she was forced to hire an attorney, and it took decades for it to be publicly known that the priest who she claims abused her had credible allegations of sexual abuse.

“The church has a history of minimizing and denying the unbelievable pain and horror of being sexually abused by a priest,” Gallagher Marchant said. “It is overwhelmingly difficult as a child to carry that secret when the church represents God in the community, and not only is that one child hurt or harmed, their family is harmed, their grade school is harmed, their church community.”

Chicago Tribune’s Elvia Malagon contributed.

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