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When hearing about sexual misconduct scandals in the Catholic Church, Catherine Dowling has shared the shock and dismay of other faithful who ask: “How can this happen?”

The former anesthesiologist and University of Michigan research supervisor thought the same when a recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania found at least 1,000 children were abused by some 300 priests over the past 70 years as generations of bishops failed to take measures to protect their flock.

Then, last weekend, came news that the Vatican's former ambassador to the United States accused Pope Francis of concealing alleged clergy abuse by Theodore McCarrick, a retired archbishop of Washington.

In response, prominent Catholic women on Thursday began circulating a letter online asking the pope to address the allegations and answer questions about the scandals.

Soon after learning of the letter, Dowling added her signature to the list of more than 21,000 supporting the pledge.

“We need answers and the truth,” she said. “The only way that things are going to get better is if all the ugliness is exposed so that it can be healed. It’s not going to go away by just pretending it’s not there.”

The letter to Pope Francis from Catholic women was commissioned less than a week after Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released a lengthy letter on Sunday accusing a long list of U.S. and Vatican officials, including Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, of covering up for McCarrick. 

Francis last month removed McCarrick as a cardinal and ordered him to a lifetime of penance and prayer after a U.S. church investigation determined an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible.

Up until then, the only accusations against McCarrick had involved sleeping with adult seminarians. Vigano claims he informed the pope of McCarrick's history at a meeting on June 23, 2013, and accused the pope of turning a blind eye and effectively rehabilitating McCarrick from the sanctions he claims Benedict had imposed in 2009 or 2010.

Once Vigano’s account was published, Francis told reporters “he would not say a single word about this,” the Catholic News Agency reported.

That spurred female scholars, theologians and other professionals to write the pope letter seeking answers.

“Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church,” the document read. “We are angry, betrayed and disillusioned.”  

Among the more 50 original signers was Janet Smith, a professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary who has also consulted for the Pontifical Council on the Family.

“We’ve been very concerned about the emergence of the sexual abuse crisis in the church. We’re very concerned it might reach the highest level of the church,” she said. “I have not met a Catholic in the last two weeks nor talked to anyone on the phone from across the country who is not more or less obsessed about it." 

The call for action gained local supporters such as Mary Healy, a sacred scripture professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary whom Francis appointed in 2014 as one of the first three women ever to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. 

She was inspired to sign the letter by “a desire that the terribly destructive crimes and sins that have gone hidden for so many years would cease, that the many lives that have been destroyed and the crimes that are crying out to God will be addressed. That there will be an end to the corruption that has been so deeply rooted and pervasive.”

In a statement following the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Vatican expressed "shame and sorrow" while also suggesting that reforms undertaken by U.S. Catholic leaders had sharply reduced the prevalence of clergy sex abuse since 2002. 

Separately, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced an investigation into the McCarrick scandal and said it would invite the Vatican to participate.

Pope Francis also vowed that "no effort must be spared" to root out priestly sex abuse and cover-up from the Catholic Church, but gave no indication that he would take action to sanction complicit bishops or end the Vatican culture of secrecy that has allowed the crisis to fester.

He has also demanded an end to "clericalism" – the culture that places priests on a pedestal.

Smith, Healy and other Catholics who signed the papal letter Thursday are quick to point out they respect the Church and Francis but want to prevent abuse.

“We don’t expect perfection from our church. We know that the cardinals, bishops and priests are human beings and we all fail,” Smith said. “But we think it’s absolutely wrong to protect the guilty who might be harming the innocent.”

That’s why Dowling believes speaking can lead to “cleaning house” in the church. “It’s really sad, but I also feel there’s hope.”

Detroit Catholic Archbishop Allen Vigneron echoed those thoughts when addressing the Vigano allegations in a statement this week.

“I join with the priests and people of the Archdiocese of Detroit in praying for the triumph of truth and transparency – and praying that it comes quickly,” he said. “Whether the Archbishop’s claims are confirmed or proved to be unfounded, the truth which comes to light will show us the sure path to the purification and reform of the Church.”

The Associated Press contributed

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