Struggling to contain one of the most serious crises of his papacy, Pope Francis met Thursday in Rome with leaders of the American Catholic Church, the epicenter of a rapidly escalating clergy sex abuse scandal.
"We shared with Pope Francis our situation in the United States -- how the Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse. He listened very deeply from the heart. It was a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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"As we departed the audience, we prayed the Angelus together for God's mercy and strength as we work to heal the wounds. We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps."
Also attending the meeting were Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; Archbishop Jose Gomez, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Monsignor Brian Bransfield, the conference's general secretary.
Neither DiNardo nor the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced any new steps or policies after Thursday's meeting. The Vatican referred reporters to DiNardo's statement.
DiNardo, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, requested the meeting with Pope Francis as the Catholic Church in the United States faces clergy sex abuse scandals on several fronts.
In the latest development, the Pope accepted the resignation of a West Virginia bishop and ordered a church-run investigation into allegations that the bishop sexually harassed adults, church officials said.
DiNardo accused of covering up abuse
On the night before his meeting with the Pope, DiNardo was accused of covering up abuse in his archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
According to an arrest warrant filed this week by police in Conroe, Texas, an unnamed woman says she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez, in 2000. The woman's father reported the abuse to the church before the family left the country, and LaRosa-Lopez was moved from the parish, according to the arrest warrant.
When the woman moved back to Conroe in 2010, she read in a church newspaper that LaRosa-Lopez had been promoted and moved to a church in Richmond, 70 miles away. The woman says she was interviewed by DiNardo and a Catholic nun and was advised that LaRosa-Lopez "had been sent to a mental institution" and was then "placed in a administrative position from which he had no contact with children or teenagers," according to the warrant.
In the affidavit, Conroe police Detective Joe McGrew said he "verified through church media that LaRosa is priest of St. John the Fisher Church in Richmond, Texas."
The abuse survivor decided to file a report late last month "because of the perceived duplicity of Cardinal DiNardo (regarding his statements regarding recent priest sex scandals) and the church's failure to adequately protect children from LaRosa," according to McGrew.
DiNardo became archbishop of Galveston-Houston in 2006. Under the "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, priests credibly accused of abusing minors are supposed to be removed from ministry.
LaRosa-Lopez was arrested Tuesday by Conroe police, who charged him with four counts of indecency with a child, after another accuser came forward in August.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said that it was told of the original abuse allegation in 2001 and immediately referred the information to Child Protective Services "for further investigation."
"Father LaRosa-Lopez denied touching the girl inappropriately, and the girl's family decided not to pursue the matter, relocating out of the country that same year," the archdiocese said.
After an internal review, LaRosa-Lopez was permitted to return to parish ministry in 2004, according to the archdiocese, and "no allegations of inappropriate conduct involving minors were presented against Father LaRosa-Lopez until 2018," the archdiocese said.
The archdiocese did not immediately respond to a request for information about the alleged 2010 meeting, during which one of the abuse survivors said she told DiNardo about her accusations against LaRosa-Lopez.
Papal meeting follows report, allegations
DiNardo had asked for Thursday's papal meeting in a public letter in August following allegations that a former top American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, had sexually abused seminarians and an altar boy. McCarrick has denied the accusations about the altar boy and has not responded to the allegations about the seminarians.
Those allegations, as well as an explosive letter from a formal papal diplomat, have raised serious questions among senior church leaders about why McCarrick was allowed to rise through the church's ranks as well as who knew about the sordid accusations against him.
Those reports come on top of a 900-page investigative report released last month by a grand jury in Pennsylvania that found more than 300 priests had sexually abused more than 1,000 children in six dioceses in the state since 1947, often while church leaders covered up the crimes.
In DiNardo's August letter, he said the bishops' executive committee had three goals: opening an investigation "into the questions surrounding" McCarrick; opening "new and confidential channels" for reporting complaints about bishops' misconduct; and advocating for more effective ways to resolve future complaints.
"We have already begun to develop a concrete plan for accomplishing these goals, relying upon consultation with experts, laity, and clergy, as well as the Vatican," DiNardo wrote on August 16. "In addition, I will travel to Rome to present these goals and criteria to the Holy See, and to urge further concrete steps based on them."
Some of the steps DiNardo is seeking -- such as an "apostolic visitation," an investigation into McCarrick led by the Vatican -- require Vatican approval. DiNardo has said lay people should be involved in the investigation as well.
The US bishops next meet as a body in November in Baltimore, where they are expected to debate and vote on DiNardo's plans.
The Pope is also facing criticism from the Vatican's former ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who says the pontiff was made aware of alleged sexual abuse by McCarrick as early as 2013 and failed to act.
An open letter published on Catholic Women's Forum, which calls on the Pope to respond to allegations by Vigano surrounding the sexual abuse scandal, has gained more than 44,000 signatures in just under two weeks.
On Wednesday, the Pope summoned top Catholic officials worldwide to meet at the Vatican in February to discuss the escalating sexual abuse scandal. The Pope will meet the presidents of the Catholic bishops conferences from around the world in the Vatican from February 21-24, the Vatican said. A CNN Poll conducted by SSRS before the Pope called the February meeting concluded that the pontiff's favorability ratings have nose-dived dramatically.
And Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the embattled archbishop of Washington, will travel to the Vatican "in the very near future" to ask Francis to accept his resignation, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Wuerl is facing increasing scrutiny both over what he may have known about abuse allegations against his predecessor, McCarrick, and how he handled abusive priests while he headed the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Wuerl has "categorically denied" that any information about accusations against McCarrick was ever brought to him. He has also defended his overall record handling clerical abuse in Pittsburgh, even while acknowledging "errors in judgment."