VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis told victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic clerics that the church should “weep and make reparation” for crimes he said had taken on the dimensions of a sacrilegious cult.
“For some time now I have felt in my heart deep pain and suffering,” he said in his strongest comments yet on the crimes, delivered in the homily of a Mass with adult victims Monday. “So much time hidden, camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained until someone realized that Jesus was looking.”
He said he would not tolerate abuse, which has been exposed in recent years in many European, American and Asian dioceses, and that Bishops would be held accountable if they shielded them.
One prominent critic of the church’s long failure to act on the cases, and of the pope’s failure to meet victims earlier in his pontificate, said he must quickly follow up with clear action to prove the Mass was not just a ceremonial event.
Francis delivered his homily to six victims of abuse, two each from Ireland, Britain and Germany, before meeting all individually at an almost four-hour long gathering, spending about 30 minutes with each one.
“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 Vatican transcript.
“Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness,” he said.
Sexual abuse scandals have haunted the Catholic Church for over two decades but became a major issue in the United States about 10 years ago. Since then they have cast a shadow over local churches in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries, and badly tarnished the Church’s image.
Monday’s meeting was closed to media but the Vatican spokesman, who participated, said it was “very intense and moving.”
“It was clearly not a public relations event. It was a very profound, spiritual encounter with a pastor, a father, who is trying to understand deeply what happened,” Father Federico Lombardi said.
The Vatican did not release the names and ages of the victims but they were believed to be in their 30s and 40s. One victim, Marie Kane, 43, of Ireland, told the Irish Times that she told the pope that “cover-up is still happening and you have the power to make these changes.”
Victims groups have been pressing the Vatican to hold bishops accountable if they covered up crimes. The pope addressed this directly, repeating the thrust of what he told reporters last April.
“There is no place in the church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” he said. “All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable.”
Victims groups welcomed the meeting but said it should have taken place long ago. The pope was elected in March 2013.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based documentation center on abuse in the Catholic Church, said the meeting was “positive and necessary,” even if overdue.
“Now Pope Francis must internalize and personalize his point about church leaders ‘who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse,’” she said in a statement.
Francis came under fire from victims groups after saying in an interview this year that the Roman Catholic Church had done more than any other organization to root out pedophiles in its ranks.
Victims groups say the pope had a spotty record of dealing with abuse in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and victims from that country sent him a letter expressing “pain” that they were not invited.
The Vatican says 3,420 credible accusations of sexual abuse by priests had been referred to the Vatican in the past 10 years and 824 clerics defrocked. The church in the United States has paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims.