Pope Francis met for the first time with victims of clerical sexual abuse on Monday and pledged that bishops who covered up such abuse of minors would be held accountable.
Likening the abuse to a “sacrilegious cult” that drove its victims to drug addiction and suicide, Francis told six victims that the church should “weep” and “make reparation” for their suffering.
“Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you, and I humbly ask forgiveness,” he said during a homily at a Mass that the victims attended at his Vatican residence.
After Mass, Francis held more than three hours of individual meetings with the victims, who hailed from Britain, Ireland and Germany. The encounters left the pope “very touched,” a Vatican spokesman said.
In his homily, Francis appeared to tackle accusations that, even if the church is now trying to root out abusers, it continues to overlook the senior church officials who shunted abusers from diocese to diocese to avoid prosecution.
The pope asked forgiveness “for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members as well as by abuse victims themselves,” according to the text of the homily released by the Vatican.
Bishops “will be held accountable” if they failed in their duty to protect minors, Francis said, adding that abuse had been “camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained.”
David Clohessy, director of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said his group was glad the pope promised to hold accountable church officials who conceal abuse. “But he hasn’t done it yet, not in Rome nor in Buenos Aires,” he said. “Saying and doing are different things. The first is easy, the second is hard.”
Francis was accused of refusing to meet abuse victims in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, before his election as pope in 2013.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, another U.S.-based group, said the meeting was “positive and necessary,” but said Francis must “follow through on his promise today to discipline the many more bishops and religious superiors who even recently have enabled child sexual abuse through their negligence or deliberate cover-up.”
In March, Francis defended the Vatican’s handling of the crisis, saying that “the Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility.” But he has also instituted a new Vatican commission on abuse, headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, which held its second meeting on Sunday and is planning to bring in new members.
On Monday, one of the six victims who met with the pope at the Vatican praised him for the time he spent with her.
Marie Kane, 43, told the Irish Times that she found the pope “very, very humble. There was no standing on ceremony. No pomp. I felt very comfortable, relaxed. He seemed genuinely frustrated at what he was hearing.”
But Kane said she had asked the pope to prove his commitment to ending cover-ups by getting rid of Cardinal Sean Brady, Ireland’s most senior church leader, who is accused of obstructing an abuse probe in 1975.
Kington is a special correspondent.