ROME — Pope Francis said Monday that he plans to celebrate a Mass with a small group of victims of sexual abuse in the coming weeks and to hold a private meeting to hear from them, a session in which Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston will also take part.
Francis also revealed that three Catholic bishops are under Vatican investigation for matters related to sexual abuse, citing those inquiries as proof that there will be no “daddy’s boys” in the clergy who enjoy special privileges on his watch.
Francis did not make it clear whether those three bishops are being investigated for abuse they are alleged to have committed or for an alleged failure to respond properly to possible abuse by others.
The pope made the comments in a press conference during his return flight from Jerusalem to Rome, at the conclusion of a three-day trip to the Middle East.
Francis used strong language to denounce the sexual abuse of children by clergy, calling it a “very grave crime” and saying that when a priest subjects a child to abuse, it is as if the priest has celebrated a “black Mass” as part of a Satanic ritual.
“We must go forward with zero tolerance,” the pontiff said.
Francis said victims from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Ireland will take part in the upcoming meeting, slated to be held in the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where he lives.
Though Pope Benedict XVI held several meetings with abuse victims, this is the first time Francis will take part in such a session. O’Malley was also instrumental in organizing the first such encounter for Benedict, which took place during a trip to the United States in 2008.
Francis said the meeting with victims would take place in early June, but officials said that the details were still being finalized and that it could take place in July. The Boston archdiocese said O’Malley had been asked by the pope to assist with planning a meeting in the “coming months.’’
“The universal Church and the international community are blessed by Pope Francis continuing a leadership role in the response to the tragic events concerning the sexual abuse of minors by clergy,’’ Terrence Donilon, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said Monday evening. “The Cardinal looks forward to supporting this effort by Pope Francis in whatever manner will be most helpful.’’
O’Malley sits both on the pope’s “G8” council of cardinal advisers, considered his most important sounding board, and on a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Francis created in December.
The pope spoke on the scandals in response to a question about whether he is prepared to hold bishops accountable if they fail to apply new church standards, such as reporting abuse complaints to civil authorities.
“In Argentina, we sometimes say that this [person] is a daddy’s boy,” the pope replied, referring to someone who receives special treatment. “On this problem, there can’t be any daddy’s boys.”
The pope’s comments come just days after a second United Nations committee issued a critical report on the Vatican’s response to the abuse scandals, charging it with failing to mandate that charges be reported to police, acquiescing in moving clergy to evade discipline, and failing to see that victims obtain compensation.
At the same time, the Committee against Torture also lauded Francis for an earlier statement of resolve in April, in which he said “we will not take one step backward” in the fight against child abuse.
David Clohessy executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a Chicago-based advocacy group for victims of clergy sex abuse, was unmoved by the Vatican’s announcement.
“This means nothing,” he said Monday evening, calling it “another savvy public relations move that will protect no kids, expose no predators, prevent no cover-ups, and punish no enablers.’’
Clohessy called on Pope Francis to take what he said would be more meaningful actions to address the abuse crisis, including taking steps to punish bishops who conceal sex crimes and ordering bishops to post predators’ names on their websites.
Addressing other issues during his press conference, Francis confirmed that accusations of financial irregularities brought against Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Italy, the Vatican’s former number two official under Benedict, “are being studied.”
Francis insisted on the importance of transparency and said that “while there will always be sinners, it’s important to try not to increase their number.”
Asked whether he might consider resigning the papacy one day, Francis said, “I’ll do what God tells me to do, by praying and seeking the will of God,” but clearly he did not rule out the possibility.
“I believe Benedict XVI is not an isolated case,” Francis said.
Pointing out that, not long ago, retired bishops were a novelty in the Catholic Church, while today they are numerous, Francis said Benedict had “opened the door” to the idea of retired popes.
As he has on other occasions, Francis said that priestly celibacy “is not a dogma of the faith” but rather “a rule . . . that I value very much and see as a gift for the church.”
On a day in which Francis met a group of Holocaust survivors at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial, Francis was asked about the possibility that he might declare sainthood for Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff whom some criticize for alleged silence on Nazi atrocities against Jews.
“The cause is open,” Francis said, adding that he was recently informed that “for now, there has been no miracle.” Church rules generally require one recognized miracle for beatification, the final step before sainthood, and another for canonization.
Francis also commented on the surprise invitation he issued during his Middle East trip for President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and President Shimon Peres of Israel to join him in the Vatican for a joint prayer for peace.
“It will be a meeting of prayer, not some kind of mediation,” the pope said.
“This is solely about prayer, and then everyone will go home,” he said. The pope added that a rabbi and a Muslim leader will also be present for the encounter.
Francis did not provide an exact date for the prayer, though Abbas’s office told media outlets on Sunday it would be June 6.
Asked about the debate over permitting Catholics to receive the sacraments after they divorce and remarry without obtaining an annulment, Francis seemed to downplay expectations for a showdown over the issue in an October summit of bishops in Rome.
“The problems of the family are enormous,” the pope said, insisting that the issue of the divorced and remarried would be treated “in the context of the whole.”
Finally, the pontiff was asked about the challenges to his project of Vatican reform, and he joked that “the first challenge is me.”
The pontiff said that the work on reform is ongoing but that a decision was made to start with Vatican finances “because there were problems of which the press spoke a lot,” presumably a reference to reports of financial scandals in the Vatican that broke shortly after his election to the papacy.