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Pope calls unprecedented meeting of top officials over sexual abuse

Rome (CNN) Pope Francis has summoned top Catholic officials to discuss the escalating sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the church.

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 Wednesday.

"The Holy Father Francis, after hearing the Council of Cardinals, has decided to convene a meeting with the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of the Catholic Church on the theme of the 'protection of minors,'" the Vatican press office said in a statement.

The announcement comes amid growing criticism of the Pope's role in dealing with historical child abuse within the Catholic Church, and a day before he is scheduled to meet Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

DiNardo, of the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas, requested the meeting with the pontiff as the Catholic Church in the US faces clerical sex abuse scandals on several fronts.

They are expected to discuss allegations that a former top American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, had sexually abused seminarians and an altar boy. McCarrick, who has denied the accusations about the altar boy and not responded to the allegations about the seminarians, resigned from his position in July.

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 accusations.

Those reports come on top of a 900-page investigative report released last month by a grand jury in Pennsylvania that found that more than 300 priests had sexually abused more than 1,000 children in six dioceses since 1947, often while church leaders covered up the crimes.

In a separate development, an open letter published on Catholic Women's Forum, which calls on the Pope to respond to allegations by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò surrounding the sexual abuse scandal, has gained more than 44,000 signatures in just under two weeks.

The letter, originally published on August 30, calls on Francis to respond to Viganò's accusation that the pontiff was made aware of alleged sexual abuse by Cardinal McCarrick as early as 2013, and subsequently failed to act.

Theodore McCarrick resigned from his post in July.

Viganò, a former Vatican ambassador to the US, said he told the Pope about the allegations five years ago, but the pontiff did nothing about it. Viganò subsequently urged the Pope to resign.

Also on Wednesday, it was revealed that the German Catholic Church will admit to "at least" 3,766 cases of child sex abuse by the clergy between 1946 and 2014 in an upcoming report that leaked to local media outlets Die Zeit and Spiegel Online.

In response to the report, Bishop Stephan Ackermann released a written statement to CNN saying the church is "dismayed and ashamed" by the findings.

CNN's Daniel Burke contributed to this report.
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