Pope Francis met for the first time Monday with people sexually abused by priests, saying Mass with six survivors and then meeting privately with each for half an hour.
In the Mass, Francis spoke of the particular pain suffered by people abused by clergy: How the abuse can lead people into difficulty with relationships and sometimes addiction and even suicide. Priests who abuse children are like members “of a sacrilegious cult,” he said.
“I feel the gaze of Jesus, and I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons,” he said, according to a transcript released Monday by the Vatican press office.
Details of the meeting were limited. Of the six survivors, two each came from Great Britain, Ireland and Germany, the Vatican said. Each of the six brought a family member or other companion.
Vatican blogger Rocco Palmo reported that half were men and half were women. Reuters reported that the meeting was at the pope’s Vatican residence.
Although the Vatican didn’t release the names of participants, the Irish Times quoted two Irish survivors who said they had met with Francis. Marie Kane, 43, said she told the pope how abuse she suffered in the 1970s still affects her now, including straining her marriage and leaving her children totally uninterested in faith. Kane said she told Francis that a priest investigating her case – Cardinal Sean Brady, now a church leader in Ireland – had sworn to secrecy two boys interviewed during the investigation. The allegations were not reported to police, and Kane’s abuser continued to abuse children until he was jailed in 1994, the Irish Times said.
“It’s a big thing with me that there are still members of the hierarchy there who were involved in the cover-up. I feel personally [the church] cannot contemplate any change happening – there will be no success” as long as the leadership remains, she told the Irish Times.
In April, Francis asked for forgiveness for “the damage” done by clergy abusers and created a commission, half of whose named members are women. One of the women is a survivor. But survivors and their advocates – particularly in Argentina, where he had been the cardinal – have been critical of the pope, saying he never met with victims in his many years as a church leader there and didn’t comply with the Vatican’s demand that countries create guidelines for handling sex-abuse allegations.
No Argentine survivors were included in Monday’s meeting. It wasn’t clear how people were picked to attend.
“This hurts because you should know of cases that happened here, and why many victims are struggling for years; plus new cases are coming to light,” said a translation of a letter written to the pope and released Monday by four Argentine survivors.
While six survivors met with the pope Monday, advocates believe there are tens of thousands of victims in the U.S. alone, and that the rate of abuse is likely higher in other nations, particularly in the developing world. The Vatican for the first time released some global data this spring, in response to an inquiry by a U.N. committee on torture. Silvano Tomasi, a Vatican ambassador, said in the past decade more than 3,400 credible cases of abuse had been referred to the Vatican.
In the Mass, Francis said church leaders were to blame:
“I beg your forgiveness, too, 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. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused, and it endangered other minors who were at risk.
“Surely it is a sign of God’s mercy that today we have this opportunity to encounter one another, to adore God, to look in one another’s eyes and seek the grace of reconciliation.”