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Pope Francis is the most popular pontiff in a generation — but can even he defeat the sex abuse scandal?

Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile in 2013. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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Pope Francis is a man of immense personal charisma, one who combines the humility of a Nelson Mandela with an almost Clintonian drive to interact with people of the land. But that warmth that has at once made him this generation’s most popular pope has also to some degree deflected attention from a darker, ongoing reality in the church: clergy sexual abuse.

In the year Francis has been pope, he has addressed scores of politically unpalatable issues — ballooning inequality, church profligacy, poverty — but some observers say he has been more reticent on the matter of sexual abuse, a scandal that continues to haunt the Vatican and likely contributed to the resignation of predecessor Pope Benedict. “He’s carefully avoided all the issues that could lead to conflict,” the editor of Vatican Radio told Frontline.

The issue of sex abuse is “a real minefield in the life of this Pope,” Robert Mickens, longtime Vatican analyst for the Tablet, also explained to Frontline. “It’s such a big issue in the Catholic Church and it’s not gone away, even though they’re singing hosannas to him right now, and that’s the sexual abuse of minors, clergy sex abuse. I know a lot of Catholics would like it to be over, but it’s not. We’re seeing new cases all the time. If the Pope doesn’t come out and set very clear, transparent and public guidelines, I think this could cripple him.”

Francis has addressed the issue of clergy sexual abuse on multiple occasions, once even saying it was like “celebrating a black mass.” But for the first time on Monday, he met with six victims of clergy sexual abuse — three male and three female European victims — and begged for forgiveness.

“Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you,” he said at his morning homily, saying in his native Spanish that such “despicable actions” had caused him “deep pain and suffering … And I humbly ask forgiveness.”

Contrition wasn’t enough for some sex abuse activists. “Stop begging for forgiveness, and and just stop the abuse,” the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests said in a statement Monday.

An 43-year-old Irishwoman named Marie Kane was one of the six victims who met with Francis. According to an interview she gave the Irish Independent, she found the pope both considerate and shorter than expected. “He is really humble,” said Kane, who was abused as a teenager by a priest who was removed from ministry but not defrocked. “There was no pomp or ceremony and plus he is not really tall, so he is not towering over you which is really nice. He holds eye contact very well.” As she wove her tale of abuse, he seemed “frustrated by what he was hearing.”

But that frustration, she said, was meaningless unless it was accompanied by changes in the church, which has fought calls to name offending priests or to address systemic factors, like mandated celibacy, that some analysts say may be fueling clergy sexual abuses. The church “can’t have certain cardinals in power that have covered up abuse and silenced victims,” she told RTE News. “It’s very hard to think you could go back into a church that still has these people in power. … The church will disappear if it doesn’t change.”

To enact such change would, however, would be a different challenge than what Francis has met in his past. According to the Wall Street Journal, he sometimes shied away from the issue of sexual abuse in his old job as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the largest diocese in Argentina, when he was merely Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Not only did an Argentine bishop’s conference he ran miss a Vatican-imposed deadline to create a sexual abuse policy, but Francis also declined meetings with victims of sexual abuse. “In four instances where abuse victims had taken their grievances against priests to court and later prevailed, the victims or their representatives said the cardinal hadn’t responded to their requests to meet,” the report said. (A spokesman for Francis said those meetings were the responsibility of the bishops, not Francis.)

The activist group, which maintains a massive database of priests accused of sexual abuse, said Francis was not attentive enough to such allegations when he was archbishop between 1998 and 2013. “During these years, as church officials in the U.S. and Europe began addressing the catastrophe of child sexual abuse by clergy — and even as Popes John Paul II and Benedict made public statements — Bergoglio stayed silent about the crisis in Argentina.”

For his part, Francis said he never heard of any abuse in his diocese. In a 2010 biography, he said “a bishop called me once by phone to ask me what to do in a situation like this.” He told the bishop to remove the offending priest from his “priest’s faculties, not to permit him to exercises his priestly ministry again, and to initiate a canonical trial.”

He said church critics have drawn a false equivalency between celibacy and pedophilia: “We can rule out that celibacy carries pedophilia as a consequence. More than 70 percent of pedophilia occur in the family … If a priest is a pedophile, he is a pedophile before he is a priest.”