Officials arrest 338 in child porn bust on dark web

Officials arrest 338 in child porn bust on dark web
By Andy Sullivan and Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Law enforcement officials said on Wednesday they had arrested hundreds of people worldwide after knocking out a South Korea-based dark web child pornography site that sold gruesome videos for digital cash.

Officials from the United States, Britain and South Korea described the network as one of the largest child pornography operations they had encountered to date.

Called Welcome To Video, the website relied on the bitcoin cryptocurrency to sell access to 250,000 videos depicting child sexual abuse, authorities said.

Officials have rescued at least 23 underage victims in the United States, Britain and Spain who were being actively abused by users of the site, the Justice Department said. Many children in the videos have not yet been identified.

The site’s vast library – nearly half of it consisting of images never seen before by law enforcement – is an illustration of what authorities say is an explosion of sexual abuse content online. In a statement, Britain’s National Crime Agency said officials were seeing “increases in severity, scale and complexity.”

Welcome To Video’s operator, a South Korean named Jong Woo Son, and 337 users in 12 different countries, have been charged so far, authorities said.

Son, currently serving an 18-month sentence in South Korea, was also indicted on federal charges in Washington.

Several other people charged in the case have already been convicted and are serving prison sentences of up to 15 years, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Welcome To Video is one of the first websites to monetize child pornography using bitcoin, which allows users to hide their identities during financial transactions.

Users were able to redeem the digital currency in return for “points” that they could spend downloading videos or buying all-you-can watch “VIP” accounts. Points could also be earned by uploading fresh child pornography.

‘BOTTOM FEEDERS OF CRIMINAL WORLD’

“These are the bottom feeders of the criminal world,” said Don Fort, chief of criminal investigation at the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which initiated the investigation.

The Justice Department said the site collected at least $370,000 worth of bitcoin before it was taken down in March 2018 and that the currency was laundered through three unnamed digital currency exchanges.

Darknet websites are designed to be all-but-impossible to locate online. How authorities managed to locate and bring down the site isn’t clear, with differing narratives by different law enforcement organizations on the matter.

Fort said the investigation was triggered by a tip to the IRS from a confidential source. However, Britain’s National Crime Agency said they came across the site during an investigation into a British academic who in October 2017 pleaded guilty  to blackmailing more than 50 people, including teenagers, into sending him depraved images that he shared online.

In a statement, British authorities said the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit deployed “specialist capabilities” to identify the server’s location. The NCA did not immediately return an email seeking clarification on the term, which is sometimes used as a euphemism for hacking.

The U.S. Justice Department gave a different explanation, saying that Welcome To Video’s site was leaking its server’s South Korean internet protocol address to the open internet.

Experts pointed to the bust as evidence that the trade in child abuse imagery could be tackled without subverting the encryption that keeps the rest of the internet safe.

Officials in the United States and elsewhere have recently begun prodding major technology firms  to come up with solutions that could allow law enforcement to bypass the encryption that protects messaging apps like WhatsApp or iMessage, citing the fight against child pornography as a major reason.

Welcome to Video’s demise “is a clear indication that in cases like this, where there’s very low-hanging fruit, breaking encryption is not required,” said Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

He said the bust showed that law enforcement could also track criminal activity that employs cryptocurrency transactions.

“There’s a lot of a people who have this perception that bitcoin is totally anonymous,” Parsons said, “and it’s been the downfall of many people in many investigations.”

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bernadette Baum)

Final body found in California boat fire, Coast Guard issues lithium battery warning

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Divers on Wednesday recovered the remains of the final victim of a California dive boat fire that killed 34 people, as the U.S. Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin focusing on emergency escape routes, crew training and the charging of lithium-ion batteries.

The 75-foot (23-meter) Conception erupted in flames at about 3:15 a.m. on Sept. 2 and sank off Santa Cruz Island. Only five crew members escaped. Recovery of the final body had been delayed by weather conditions that complicated dive operations.

“The Conception Incident Unified Command is relieved to report that search and recovery efforts today were successful in locating the last missing victim,” The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said on Twitter.

“DNA testing is still being conducted to confirm identities of 7 of the 34 victims recovered,” the sheriff’s office said.

The Coast Guard did not identify a cause of the fire in its safety bulletin, and the incident remains under investigation by multiple local and federal law enforcement agencies.

But the document suggests that investigators may be looking into the possibility that the fire was ignited by passengers charging electronic devices in the below-decks sleeping quarters and could not escape once flames were raging in the cramped space.

“A Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) has been convened and will conduct a thorough and comprehensive marine casualty investigation to determine the causal factors that contributed to this tragic incident,” the bulletin states.

It adds: “The Coast Guard and the maritime industry do not have to delay until the MBI has completed their investigation before taking immediate and positive action.

EXTENSION CORDS

Five crew members who were above deck when the fire broke out survived by leaping overboard, telling investigators the fierce blaze made it impossible to rescue the passengers. The victims are believed to have died of smoke inhalation.

The Coast Guard bulletin recommends that vessel owners “immediately” review crew training, make sure emergency escape routes are clearly identified and unobstructed and that required fire-fighting and life-saving equipment are on board.

The document also urges crews to “reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”

The Los Angeles Times has reported that investigators had identified possible safety lapses on the Conception, including the lack of a night watchman and failure to properly train the crew for emergencies.

Truth Aquatics has filed a petition in federal court in Los Angeles seeking to avoid liability by invoking a 19th-century law that has been used in such disasters as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)

9/11 We will not forget!

By Kami Klein

On September 11th, 2001, we witnessed the worst of humanity; an evil we could not imagine. Over 3000 lost their lives that day when a group of terrorists shook our nation to its core. The loss of so many rippled throughout the world.  Families were torn apart within a few hours. The grief was unimaginable and America’s heart was broken. 

 After the attacks, countless stories unfolded revealing extraordinary acts of courage, sacrifice, kindness, and compassion. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center in New York City alone over 16.000 people performed rescue, recovery, demolition and debris cleanup.  These amazing men and women did not know or care about the dangers of their task but rose up in tremendous courage to show the best of what America stands for. 

Ground zero contained toxic dust that held heavy metals and asbestos and other dangerous chemicals.  We are seeing the aftermath years later as countless of these heroes of 9/11 have died or are very sick from illnesses related to this tragedy.  Scarring in the lungs has effected hundreds of responders and experts say this is only the beginning.   

So far, 156 New York City police officers have died from 9/11 related illnesses. 182 in the Fire Department. Countless others are facing debilitating lung disease and aggressive cancers. 

We cannot forget those who lost their lives on 9/11.  We cannot forget now, those that are still giving their lives for our country because of that day and the days following 9/11.  

Eighteen years ago, the nation turned to God.  The churches were filled and prayers were said all over the world. We embraced each other no matter what political belief or religious faith. We were not offended by each other because together we were at war with evil. 

We are still at war but somehow we have turned on one another. 

The attack of 9/11 is not over.  Our heroes from that day are the victims now. We must remember those who are still suffering and fill our churches with faith and prayer. We the people of the United States must feel called upon to honor these brave men and women.  May we come together again, as we did on that day when Love won over hate, Good over evil, and all of us remembered that we are Americans and were willing to sacrifice for each other.

The Lord worked through the very best of us that day and continued doing so during the months and years that have passed. In our prayers, in our memories, and in the stories that we must pass on, these are the people and heroes we cannot afford to ever forget!   

 

U.S. judge wants quick review of sealed documents tied to Epstein

Attorney Sigrid McCawley, lawyer for Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, speaks outside Manhattan Federal Court following a hearing in a defamation lawsuit filed by one of Jeffrey Epstein's alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, in New York, U.S., September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan R Smith

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New York federal judge said on Wednesday she would move quickly in deciding whether to unseal hundreds of court documents linked to financier Jeffrey Epstein, who died last month while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

The documents are part of a civil lawsuit filed by one of Epstein’s alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, against Epstein’s former associate, Ghislaine Maxwell. Giuffre has said Epstein and Maxwell trafficked her for sex while she was a teenager.

Giuffre sued Maxwell in 2015 and accused the British socialite of defaming her by calling her a liar. Maxwell has denied the claims, and the case settled on undisclosed terms earlier this year.

More than 900 court filings in the case remained secret until early August, when a federal appeals court unsealed about 2,000 pages of documents. The court ordered U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska to review each of the remaining documents to determine whether they should be unsealed.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Preska gave Giuffre, Maxwell and other interested parties two weeks to divide the documents into three categories. Preska said one category of documents – those that could have been used by a judge to decide core issues in the case – are most likely to be unsealed.

The parties will then will have a chance to make arguments about what should be public and what should remain secret.

Jeffrey Pagliuca, Maxwell’s lawyer, said at the hearing that the documents contained “hundreds” of names of people who would need to be notified and given a chance to object before they were made public.

On Tuesday, lawyers for an anonymous man urged Preska in a letter to keep the names of people who were not parties to the lawsuit secret.

Epstein was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges. Prosecutors said he recruited numerous underage girls to give him massages and then sexually abused them.

The wealthy 66-year-old money manager was found dead on Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan. An autopsy concluded that he hanged himself.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Paul Simao)

Texas gunman fired from job before massacre; victim IDs emerge: media

People gather for a vigil following Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

By Keith Coffman and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The man who killed seven people and wounded 22 others in a rolling rampage across West Texas on Saturday was fired from his trucking job hours before the massacre, media and officials reported.

Details about the Labor Day weekend shooting and the names of some of the victims were emerging online and from officials on Sunday and early Monday. Police continued to comb through 15 different crime scenes in neighboring Midland and Odessa, Texas.

The gunman, identified by police as Seth Aaron Ator, 36, of Odessa, had been fired from his truck-driving job in Odessa on Saturday morning, the New York Times and other media reported.

Hours later, Ator was pulled over in Midland by Texas state troopers on Interstate 20 for failing to use a turn signal, police said.

Armed with an AR-type rifle, Ator fired out the back window of his vehicle, injuring one trooper. Then he drove away spraying gunfire indiscriminately, the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

At one point, Ator abandoned his vehicle and hijacked a U.S. postal van and mortally wounded the postal carrier, identified postal officials as Mary Grandos, 29.

Ator was later cornered by officers in the parking lot of a cinema complex in Odessa. He was shot and killed.

“There are no definitive answers as to motive or reasons at this point, but we are fairly certain that the subject did act alone,” Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said at a news conference.

Online court records showed Ator had convictions in 2002 for criminal trespass and evading arrest. The Midland Reporter-Telegram newspaper quoted a state lawmaker, Rep. Tom Craddick, as saying he had previously failed a background check.

Gerke offered his condolences to their families of the dead and wounded.

A man holds flowers and a candle as people gather for a vigil following Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

A man holds flowers and a candle as people gather for a vigil following Saturday’s shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

“My heart aches for them all,” he said.

Among the dead was Grandos, who various news media reported was at the end of her shift and on the telephone with her twin sister Rosie Grandos.

“She didn’t deserve this,” a tearful Rosie Grandos said in an interview with CNN late Sunday. “I was talking to her on the phone and she said she heard gunshots but didn’t know where they were coming from.

“I heard her screaming,” she said. “I was hearing her cry and scream for help. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Rosie Grandos said got in her car and drove to her sister. By the time she arrived, she saw her sister lying on the ground, she said.

The Washington Post reported that others among the dead were Edwin Peregrino, 25, who was killed outside of the home he moved into a few weeks ago.

Also killed was Leilah Hernandez, 15, who had just celebrated a coming of age party, the newspaper reported.

Joseph Griffith, 40, was killed as he waited at a traffic light with his wife and two children, the newspaper reported.

Among the wounded was a 17-month-old girl, Anderson Davis, who was shot in the face, according to officials and an online fundraising campaign started by her family.

In numerous media interviews, her family that the child underwent surgery and will recover.

Three police officers were shot and wounded – one from Midland, one from Odessa and one state trooper – and were in stable condition.

It was the second mass shooting in Texas in four weeks. On Aug. 3, a gunman from the Dallas area killed 22 people in another Saturday shooting at a Walmart store about 255 miles (410 km) west of Midland in the city of El Paso, Texas.

President Donald Trump called the Odessa-Midland shooter “a very sick person,” but said background checks on gun buyers would not have prevented recent U.S. gun violence.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)

His cross to bear: carpenter creates memorial for yet another shooting

FILE PHOTO: People pray next to a row of crosses representing each of the victims at a growing memorial site two days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, U.S. August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare/File Photo

By Daniel Trotta

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – Volunteers on Monday planted crosses, each representing a fatality in Saturday’s mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, at a shrine to the victims that included “El Paso strong” signs, flowers, candles, bible verses and U.S. and Mexican flags.

Police have not released the names of the victims of the attack, which authorities have called an act of domestic terrorism that appeared to target Hispanics. Hours later, a separate mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, killed nine people. The attacks injured dozens more.

Greg Zanis of Crosses for Losses, who has been making white, waist-high wooden crosses for victims of tragedies since 1986, provided them for the shrine to the victims near the Walmart store.

“Today is the worst day. I’m going to have to go to Dayton, Ohio, right now. I don’t know how I can handle this day,” Zanis told reporters at the shrine.

Zanis said he has made more than 26,000 crosses since the master carpenter began his one-man mission after finding the body of his father-in-law, who had been shot to death.

In 1999, he erected 13 crosses in Colorado in honor of the victims of the shooting rampage at Columbine High School. Last year he went to Pittsburgh to deliver 11 Stars of David in remembrance of the worshippers shot dead on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life synagogue, and barely two weeks later to Thousand Oaks, Calif., for the 12 victims of a shooting there, and then to Paradise, Calif., the following month after a wildfire destroyed the town, killing at least 85.

He was even forced into action for a workplace shooting on Feb. 15 in his home town of Aurora, Illinois that killed six.

“These people all don’t think it will happen in their towns, and I was dumb enough to think it wouldn’t happen in mine,” Zanis said.

MEXICAN NATIONALS

At least eight of the victims in the border city of El Paso were Mexican nationals. One funeral home is offering free cremation services for the victims as the city mourned.

At the Walmart shrine, Tony Basco, 61, planted a cross for his partner of 22 years, Margie Reckard, 67, according to the name and age on the cross.

“I’ve been lost. I’m like a puppy run away from its momma. She took care of me,” Basco said. “But my wife, she’d say get up off your rear end and grow up. Because now I’ve got to take care of the bills, take care of the cat.”

Basco was unaware Zanis would be presenting her cross. He just happened to be visiting the site for the first time since the massacre.

“I just wanted to go where she died,” Basco said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Bill Berkrot)

Abuse victims demand to see pope, say bishops should be sacked

Peter Isley, survivor of sexual abuse, talks to reporters outside the Vatican in Rome, Italy February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Victims of sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy on Wednesday demanded to meet Pope Francis personally to press demands that bishops who covered up such offenses be dismissed from the priesthood.

The 10 victims met for nearly three hours with five Vatican officials a day before the start of an unprecedented conference on abuse within the Church, designed to guide senior bishops on how best to tackle a problem that has decimated its credibility.

All the survivors of abuse expressed disappointment that the pope did not come to the meeting, even though he was not scheduled to be there.

“If he can meet with all those bishops over there he can meet with us,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest when he was a boy.

“We made our demands for zero tolerance. We want the pope to write into universal law: zero tolerance for the cover-up of sex crimes. They can do it right now,” he told reporters after the meeting with the officials, all of them clerics.

He and other victims said bishops who had covered up abuse should be dismissed from the priesthood, just like those who had committed the abuse itself.

Other abuse victims waited outside the building where the meeting took place.

“We believed that this morning’s meeting would be with the pope, with a cross-section of survivors from around the world,” one, Englishman Peter Saunders, told Reuters TV.

He was not among those who took part in the meeting.

“It would seem that the pope, once again, is giving the two fingers to survivors and to child protection everywhere,” he said, using an English expression for a crude gesture.

The Vatican said the pope’s presence at the meeting was never intended because he would see others during the conference.

Isely and others who attended Wednesday’s meeting said they too wanted to meet the pope because they represented those with the most experience and information in gathering data on both abusers as well as victims.

Victims who meet Francis and address the four-day conference will remain anonymous at their request.

(editing by John Stonestreet)

Catholic Church credibility on the line at abuse meeting

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall in the Vatican March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican will gather senior bishops from around the world later this week for a conference on sex abuse designed to guide them on how best to tackle a problem that has decimated the Church’s credibility, but critics say it is too little, too late.

The unprecedented four-day meeting, starting on Thursday, brings together presidents of national Roman Catholic bishops conferences, Vatican officials, experts and heads of male and female religious orders.

“I am absolutely convinced that our credibility in this area is at stake,” said Father Federico Lombardi, who Pope Francis has chosen to moderate the meeting.

“We have to get to the root of this problem and show our ability to undergo a cure as a Church that proposes to be a teacher or it would be better for us to get into another line of work,” he told reporters.

The meeting, whose theme is “prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults”, comes as the 1.3 billion-member Church still struggles to enact a concerted, coordinated and global effort to tackle a crisis that is now more than two decades old.

Lombardi, 71, said bishops from countries including the United States, which have developed protocols for preventing abuse and investigating accusations against individual members of the clergy, would share experiences and knowledge with those from developing countries, including those whose cultures make it harder to discuss abuse.

The Church has repeatedly come under fire for its handling of the sexual abuse crisis, which exposed how predator priests were moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked or turned over to civilian authorities around the world.

Most of the crimes took place decades ago.

The pope called the meeting in September at the suggestion of his closest advisers, and last month he told reporters it was necessary because some bishops still did not know fully the procedures to put in place to protect the young and how to administer cases of abuse.

Francis said it would be a “catechesis,” or a teaching session, a pronouncement that stunned victims of abuse and their advocates.

DISGRACEFUL DELAY

Some experts have questioned why it has taken so long to get to this point.

“The fact that this still exists in 2019, that there is still awareness-raising that has to be done (among bishops) is a measure of what a low priority this has truly been for the Vatican,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle of the U.S.-based abuse tracking group bishopaccountability.org.

“I hope he has the candor to admit that it’s absolutely disgraceful that that’s where we are today,” said Barrett-Doyle, speaking in St. Peter’s Square.

On Saturday the Vatican sent what some saw as a warning that it would get tough with bishops who have either committed abuse or covered it up.

It expelled former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the Roman Catholic priesthood after he was found guilty of sexual crimes against minors and adults.

While many priests have been expelled for sexual abuse, few bishops have met the same fate, and McCarrick was the first former cardinal to be thrown out.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s top sexual crimes investigator, told Reuters that McCarrick’s dismissal was a “very important signal” to the Catholic hierarchy that no one is above the law.

While victims of sexual abuse and their advocates welcomed the expulsion, many were skeptical.

“I worry that this (McCarrick’s expulsion) is not going to be anything more than the equivalent of the pope tossing a bone to placate his critics, placate the survivors,” said Phil Saviano, who was molested by a priest in Massachusetts when he was 12 years old and whose story was told in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Mike Collett-White and David Evans)

Thousands brave freezing cold in vigil for Illinois shooting victims

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

By Robert Chiarito

AURORA, Ill. (Reuters) – More than 2,000 people braved icy rain in sub-freezing temperatures in Illinois on Sunday for a vigil paying respects to five people killed and five police officers wounded by a factory worker who opened fire on Friday after losing his job.

Solemn mourners stood before five white crosses with the names of the dead that became a shrine to the victims bearing pictures and hand-written remembrances outside the factory where the shooting took place in Aurora, about 40 miles (64 km) west of Chicago.

“My heart is broken again for the family members of the victims,” said Mary Kay Mace, mother of the late Ryanne Mace, who was killed 11 years ago in a mass shooting at Northern Illinois University.

“I’m living proof that you can survive it, however. It’s a hard, difficult trek but it can be done,” said Mace, 55, who drove three hours from Petersburg, Illinois, and wore a university pin to honor shooting victim Trevor Wehner, a 21-year-old intern from NIU who was on his first day on the job.

The other fatal victims were Josh Pinkard, the plant manager; Clayton Parks, the human resources manager; Russell Beyer, a mold operator and union chairman; and Vicente Juarez, a stock room attendant and forklift operator.

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

Mourners attend a vigil for five people killed in a shooting incident at Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Illinois, U.S. February 17, 2019. REUTERS/Robert Chiarito

A sixth employee and five police officers responding to the scene were wounded. The gunman himself was slain about 90 minutes later in a gunfight with police who stormed the building.

Friday’s bloodshed marked the latest outbreak of gun violence in a nation where mass shootings have become almost commonplace and came a day after the first anniversary of the massacre of 17 people by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Several local pastors spoke and the vigil drew people of many ages.

Barbara Fultz, a 72-year-old retired woman who has been living in Aurora for more than 50 years, said her church, Main Baptist Church in Aurora, had told members about the vigil and she has a cousin who works at the Henry Pratt Company factory, a maker of industrial valves.

“It’s a tragedy all over,” Fultz said. “We’ve never had anything like this here. It’s so sad.”

Michelle Lamos, a 40-year-old healthcare worker, stood with her 14-month-old daughter.

“We need to come together. This is awful,” Lamos said.

The gunman was a violent felon who obtained a state permit to buy a firearm despite being legally barred from owning one, officials said.

(Reporting by Robert Chiarito; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Catholic bishops told to act on sex abuse or lose all credibility

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis celebrates a special mass for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Max Rossi - RC11EC66C6A0/File Photo

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Roman Catholic Church’s leading experts on sexual abuse told bishops on Tuesday finally to take responsibility for a global clerical abuse scandal and go and speak personally to victims, or risk seeing the Church lose its credibility worldwide.

Pope Francis has summoned the heads of some 110 national Catholic bishops’ conferences and dozens of experts and leaders of religious orders to the Vatican on Feb. 21-24 for an extraordinary gathering dedicated to the sexual abuse crisis.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse are hoping that the meeting will finally come up with a clear policy to make bishops themselves accountable for the mishandling of abuse cases.

“Absent a comprehensive and communal response, not only will we fail to bring healing to victim-survivors, but the very credibility of the Church to carry on the mission of Christ will be in jeopardy throughout the world,” the conference’s steering committee said in a letter to all participants.

“But each of us needs to own this challenge, coming together in solidarity, humility, and penitence to repair the damage done, sharing a common commitment to transparency, and holding everyone in the Church accountable,” said the letter, which was released by the Vatican.

The committee is made up of Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s leading sex abuse investigator, and Father Hans Zollner, an abuse expert based in Rome.

“The first step must be acknowledging the truth of what has happened,” they said.

Each bishop was asked to visit survivors of clergy sex abuse in their area to learn first-hand the suffering that they have endured.

“PUTTING VICTIMS FIRST”

“This is a concrete way of putting victims first, and acknowledging the horror of what happened,” said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, adding that the February gathering would focus on responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Last month, when U.S. bishops held their annual assembly in Baltimore, the Vatican asked them to wait until the February meeting before voting on a series of corrective measures.

The proposals included a telephone hotline to report accusations of mishandling of cases of abuse by bishops, a review board made up of non-clerics to handle accusations against bishops, and a bishops’ code of conduct.

Victims’ groups and some bishops saw the Vatican intervention as a setback. But the Vatican said it wanted to see if some of the U.S. proposals could be applied worldwide, not just in the United States.

The Church is also facing sexual abuse scandals in Chile, Australia and Germany.

In September, a study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference showed that 1,670 clerics and priests had sexually abused 3,677 minors, mostly males, in Germany over a 70-year period.

A U.S. Grand Jury report in August found that 301 priests in the state of Pennsylvania had sexually abused minors over a similar period.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)