Pope Francis has met with victims of clerical sexual abuse on the last day of his tour in the US, telling them he was committed to making sure those guilty of abuse were punished, a spokesman for the Vatican said.
In a statement, Federico Lombardi said the pope had spent half an hour with five people who as minors had been victims of sex abuse, not only by members of the clergy but by family members or teachers. Francis, who met the three women and two men at the Saint Charles Borromeo seminary in Philadelphia, listened to them and “prayed with them”, said Lombardi.
While the meeting was not a surprise – the Vatican had suggested for weeks that Pope Francis could meet with victims, but that it would not publicize such a meeting beforehand – it followed a week in which the pope’s earlier remarks on the sex abuse scandal were harshly criticized by some survivors.
On Sunday, he sought to address some of those complaints, addressing the plight of victims directly.
At a speech to a meeting of bishops at Saint Martin’s Chapel in the seminary, Francis said: “[It] continues to be on my mind that people who had the responsibility to take care of these tender ones [children] violated that trust and caused them great pain.”
He added: “God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable. Those who have survived this abuse have become true heralds of mercy – humbly, we owe each of them our gratitude for their great value as they have had to suffer this terrible abuse sexual abuse of minors.”
Earlier this week, at a high-profile speech before US bishops on Wednesday, Francis emphasized the “courage” the bishops had shown in confronting the sex abuse crisis, which severely damaged the reputation of the church, and commended them for selling church property to compensate the victims. The remarks were seen as a “slap in the face” to some victims, according to Barbara Blaine, an abuse survivor who started SNAP, an advocacy group for victims that has been very critical of the pope.
Francis has already issued an apology for the church’s inadequate response to the crisis. But the meeting with the victims in the US is significant because it represents the first time the Argentine pontiff is meeting with victims outside of Rome. As archbishop in Argentina, then Jorge Bergoglio was sometimes criticized for not being as attentive to the unfolding sex abuse storm as lawyers and victim advocates wanted him to be.