Pope Francis leaves the Paul VI hall at the end of his meeting with youths attending the synod at the Vatican on Saturday. The three-week meeting will likely be dominated by what many analysts call Catholicism's worst crisis since reformation.Gregorio Borgia/AP
"As clerical sex abuse scandals buffet the Catholic Church, a three-week assembly of bishops is under way in Rome on how to make the Church relevant for young people. But the assembly, known as a synod, will likely be dominated by what many analysts call Catholicism's worst crisis since the reformation.
Roughly 250 priests, bishops, cardinals and some younger laypersons are participating in the synod.
In the opening mass, pope Francis urged them "to dream and to hope."
And he prayed for God's help to ensure the Church does not let itself "be extinguished or crushed by the prophets of doom and misfortune, by our own shortcomings, mistakes and sins."
Spiraling sex abuse scandals have hurt the pope. A new Pew Research Center poll found Francis' favorability rating in the United States is 51 percent — down 19 points since January 2017.
As the synod opened, one block from St. Peter's Square, some 20 abuse survivors — members of the international group Ending Clergy Abuse — voiced their anger at the church.
"We victims must unite," a protestor shouted, "that's the only way we can bring this evil to an end."
Arturo Borelli said he was abused by a priest who fled both civil and Church justice.
Nearby, some 20 people — Italians and other Europeans — held placards reading, "No more cover-ups and make zero tolerance real."
"I think we are in the deepest crisis of the Roman Catholic Church," said Christian Weisner, one of the German founders of the progressive Catholic movement We Are Church.
He believes Francis is doing the best he can handling the crisis but needs much more support from bishops.
"Especially now at the youth synod, the bishops they have to face this problem, they have to give answers, they have to take responsibility," Weisner said.
Clerical sex abuse is not the only issue haunting the Catholic Church.
On the eve of the synod, a group of Catholic women activists met in Rome to demand decision-making positions in the Church for women.
But Chantal Goetz, founder of the movement Voices of Faith, acknowledged nothing will change as long as clericalism prevails — that culture of clergy entitlement and unaccountability.
"The whole government structure is crippled and paralyzed by clericalism, it cannot just be repaired somehow but must die and be resurrected in a totally new form," Goetz said.
Celia Wexler, author of a book on women's struggles in the Church, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope, said that it's hard for Catholic women to speak out because they have always been taught to obey.
"I think we have to come to the point where we don't ask permission, we speak out and speak up and talk to one another," she said.
And that's exactly what some 20 women did as synod participants were entering the assembly hall. Organized by the Women's Ordination Conference, the peaceful protest consisted in chanting the names of participating prelates as in a litany.
"Pope Francis, let women vote. Cardinal Cupich let women vote. Cardinal Sarah, let women vote, Cardinal Marx, let women vote. ... Knock, Knock, who's there? More than half the church," they chanted.
The women were denouncing gender discrimination — at the synod, laymen have been granted the right to vote but the few laywomen participants cannot.
The peaceful demonstration ended when Italian police — officers in plainclothes and others with bulletproof vests — intervened, manhandling several of the women."