AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Pope Francis has been accused of dealing too slowly with the problem of clergy sex abuse, but now there are signs he wants to change that. Tomorrow the pope will meet with several U.S. bishops who've been pushing him for answers. He has also called a meeting next February of bishops from around the world to come up with a church-wide response to the abuse crisis.
NPR's Tom Gjelten covers religion for us. He's here in the studio now. And, Tom, these U.S. bishops the pope is going to see tomorrow - they asked for this meeting about a month ago. What's the delay?
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the Catholic Church is not the most agile institution in the world. And apparently that includes Pope Francis as well. As you say, this meeting tomorrow came in response to a request last month from the president of the U.S. bishops conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. That was back on August 16. They said they wanted to talk to the pope about a specific Vatican plan to deal with this crisis. And only now are they getting this meeting.
Also, Francis has been slow to respond to the former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Vigano. He essentially accused Francis of being part of a big church cover-up, even called on him to resign. Francis ignored the accusation. It was only this week that his Council of Cardinals said that clarifications are coming.
CORNISH: We should mention here that Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., will also be in that meeting with the pope. We can assume this has to do with his own connection to an abuse scandal back in Pennsylvania, right?
GJELTEN: Right, Audie. Cardinal Wuerl was implicated in that big Pennsylvania grand jury report last month. He hasn't himself been accused of abusing anyone. But when he was the bishop of Pittsburgh, he allegedly let some abusive priests off the hook. As a result, he's come under pressure to resign. He didn't respond for a while. But last night, he released a letter saying he'll go to Rome soon. It's not clear he'll be there tomorrow. But he is going to be talking to Pope Francis. Today his office clarified he will in fact ask the pope to accept his resignation.
CORNISH: What's likely to come out of these meetings?
GJELTEN: Well, the pope has to decide what to do - whether to accept Cardinal Wuerl's resignation and, more importantly, what to do about Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl's predecessor as the D.C. archbishop. Formerly a cardinal, he had to resign that position this summer in response to an allegation he'd abused an altar boy years ago. But that's not the end of the story. He faces a church trial, and the pope now has to decide how to proceed with that. This is one of the things the U.S. bishops are asking about. And it's complicated by the fact that McCarrick was a close ally of the pope.
Behind that, Audie, is the broader question of, how do you hold bishops more accountable in general? We now know that clergy abuse is not just some isolated thing that happens in one place or another. It basically happens around the world. It's a systemic problem. The church desperately needs to do more about it. I mean, what do you? Do you just let disgraced bishops quietly go off and retire? You know how controversial that is 'cause you covered the case of...
CORNISH: Cardinal of Boston...
GJELTEN: ...Cardinal Law.
CORNISH: ...Cardinal Law. What does this all mean for Pope Francis specifically?
GJELTEN: He is being challenged now like he's never been challenged before. You know, in many ways, he's been something of a polarizing pope. He has taken some bold stands. He's made enemies. And now his enemies seem to be taking advantage of this moment to go after them - after him. They said that he looked the other way with allies like Archbishop McCarrick. He's also been more sympathetic to LGBT people than - including gay priests, than his predecessors. And now you have his enemies saying that could be part of the problem. They have linked clergy abuse to homosexuality in the priesthood, and so they are saying he has contributed to that by being as tolerant of gay priests as he has been.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, thank you.
GJELTEN: You bet, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.