PHILADELPHIA — For the second time in the United States and the seventh time overall, a pope has met with victims of sexual abuse. This time, it was Pope Francis, who held a private meeting with five survivors in Philadelphia Sunday morning and pledged to hold those responsible accountable.
“I carry in my heart the stories, the suffering, and the pain of the minors that have been sexually abused by priests,” Francis said. “I’m overwhelmed by the shame that people who were in charge of caring for those young ones raped them and caused them great damages.”
He vowed that crimes against minors will not be hidden: “I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable.”
Pope Francis confirmed the meeting while addressing the world’s bishops in Philadelphia. The Vatican said the pope met with three women and two men who were abused by clergy, relatives, or teachers, for about 30 minutes. Each one was accompanied by a relative. Francis prayed with them, and listened to their stories individually.
Francis and US bishops have argued that child molestation is a serious problem beyond the Church, especially within families and in schools. The pope’s meeting with victims abused by people other than priests underscored that point.
Later, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the Church is responsible for caring for those not just “abused by the clergy, but in general.”
But the meeting did little to assuage at least one survivors’ group’s disenchantment with the Vatican’s response to the decades-old clergy abuse crisis. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests called the meeting nothing but “another ‘feel good, do nothing’ papal meeting.”
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the group was accompanied by Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the pope’s sexual abuse commission; Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput, and Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia office for the protection of minors.
Later in the day, talking to members of the press, Lombardi said survivors of abuse from family members and teachers had been included because “the responsibility of the Church toward the young people, and the job of the pope’s commission isn’t only to take care of minors abused by the clergy but in general.”
The first such meeting was held by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2008 visit to the United States, after years of complaints by victims and their advocates that popes were insensitive to the victims of clerical sexual abuse because they had never met with them.
Francis could have held this meeting in either Washington and New York, but likely chose Philadelphia because it has been hit hard by the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
Two grand juries, one in 2005 and one in 2012, reported extensive instances of abusive priests in the archdiocese, and led to the criminal conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, the first Church official to be convicted in the United States of covering up abuse committed by fellow priests.
One of the principal challenges that awaited Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the pope’s host for the World Meeting of Families, was trying to repair both a morale crisis in the archdiocese and serious financial shortfalls when he took over from Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali in 2011.
Francis’ words regarding the clerical sexual abuse crisis have been the most criticized of his six-day visit to the United States, as some perceived the pontiff as siding more with the American hierarchy than the victims.
In remarks to US bishops in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, for example, he gave them his sympathy. “I am also conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the Church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice, he said.”
SNAP issued a statement saying that rather than courage, American bishops have displayed “cowardice and callousness” in their handling of the abuse scandals.
During the first 30 months of his pontificate, Francis met with survivors of clerical sex abuse just once before, in July 2014, more than a year after his election.
“I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” the pontiff told the survivors at the time.
On his commission’s recommendation, the pope created a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock by covering up for pedophile priests.
One of the six survivors he met with at the time was Englishman Peter Saunders, who was abused by two clerics, a member of his family, and a lay teacher when he was a minor. He’s currently advising Francis as a member of the pope’s sexual abuse commission headed by O’Malley.
Saunders described the meeting as a “life-changing experience,” and said he believed the pope to be a “sincere man … who wants to do this right.”
Pope Benedict XVI met with survivors five times during his eight-year pontificate. Both meetings on US soil were put together by O’Malley, and in both cases the Vatican confirmed the encounters only after they happened.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.