PHILADELPHIA – Twice during his historic visit to the United States, Pope Francis praised bishops, priests and nuns for bearing up under the sexual abuse crisis that has afflicted the Catholic church, angering victims who hoped he at least would acknowledge their suffering.
On his last day, the pope addressed church leadership again – this time revealing he had just met privately with five survivors of abuse, assuring them he believed their stories and vowing that clergy and bishops would be held accountable for “the sins and crimes” of abuse.
“God weeps,” he said before an international collection of bishops and clergy gathered at St. Charles Borremeo Seminary outside the city. “It continues to overwhelm me with shame that the people who were charged with taking care of these tender ones violated their trust and caused them tremendous pain,” he said, according to the Washington Post translation of his remarks, delivered in Spanish.
Pope Francis met with the survivors, three women and two men, as a group and individually and prayed with them, according to a news release from the Vatican. It was his second such meeting; he had celebrated mass with six survivors last year.
His meeting and promise “to support your continued healing” were heartening to some victims’ advocates and unimpressive to others.
“It’s definitely encouraging that he did take time to meet with the victims,” said Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi, who
had been abused by a priest and is the sponsor of a bill that would lift the statute of limitations for two years so victims
can testify about clergy abuse. “But now we need action to follow those words. That would be true justice.”
The Sunday remarks and meeting with survivors were nothing more than a “smart public relations move,” said David Clohessy of the main support group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No.”
The five chosen for the early-morning meeting with Pope Francis were not all abused by Catholic clergy, according to the
Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican. Some had been molested by teachers or relatives. Lombardi said that the composition of the meeting was intended to show the “larger perspective” of sexual abuse beyond the church. Both Francis and the U.S. bishops have argued that molestation is a serious issue throughout society.
But this choreography also struck some advocates as a deliberate deflection of responsibility for a scandal that continues
to reverberate through the Catholic church.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been the subject of repeated grand jury investigations, which found that many priests
accused of abuse continued to serve in ministries, and a church official is in jail for covering up crimes. Last week, the
Archdiocese of Milwaukee offered a plan in bankruptcy court to settle claims with some 550 victims, and a Pennsylvania priest was convicted in a sex tourism case of abusing boys in a Honduras orphange.
“As with all things related to the Catholic Church, you have to listen to the words and then you have to watch what they do,” said John Salveson, a clergy sex abuse survivor, prominent activist and president of The Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.
Salveson said the Vatican has been aware of possible solutions “for years, if not decades.” They include releasing the identity of priests who have been defrocked for abusing children; involving civil authorities when there is abuse, particularly in other countries, and extending the statute of limitations on clergy sex abuse, he said.
“The reason this all continued is that these priests don’t get prosecuted and the bishops who hide them don’t get prosecuted and because they are protected by the statute of limitations,” he said.
The pope’s outreach is useful to the extent it eases victims’ suffering, said Marie Collins, a member of an advisory commission the pope set up to help him improve the church’s response to abuse.
“If it’s going to help their healing, then it’s a positive experience for them. It’s a very positive experience for them,”
said Collins, a clergy abuse survivor from Ireland. But, Collins added, the meeting “really is not connected [to the] work
for the future of child protection.”
Instead, she said, the pope’s decision to set up a papal commission advising him on how to handle the issue going forward
was “the most positive change to happen” so far.
The meeting happened at the seminary at about 8 a.m., just before Pope Francis’s remarks, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. The meeting lasted for a half an hour.
“Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered,” Pope Francis told the survivors, according to a copy of
his remarks released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I’m profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted,” he said.
“For those who were abused by a member of the clergy, I am deeply sorry for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed,” the pope said to survivors, “Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you. I deeply regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children. It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops were even abusers.”
He pledged that “clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”
Immediately after the remarks at the seminary, the assembled clergy praised the pope’s remarks on the sexual abuse scandal. “I thought it was very, very good and it was very clear. And from that point of view, it was an excellent visit among so many excellent visits,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Vice President of the USCCB.
He said “there is a good deal of work already being done around the church [on the matter]. To the extent that we will not
let up on what we said we would do.”
Karen Heller, Anthony Olivo, Frances Sellers, and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report, which has been updated multiple times.