ROME-- Pope Francis held his first meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse on Monday, pledging to carry forward the fight against the scandals that have rocked Catholicism for more than a decade.
“I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” the pontiff said.
Francis also pledged that any bishop who fails in his responsibility to protect minors “will be held accountable.”
The line amounts to a response to a long-standing complaint by critics of the Vatican, which is that while a handful of Catholic bishops have been disciplined for abuse they’re alleged to have committed themselves, none has suffered consequences for failing to respond appropriately to allegations against others.
The pope met the small group of victims, including two each from Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom, in the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where he resides. They joined the pontiff for his morning Mass, and then Francis spoke to each victim one-on-one.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, a member of the pope’s new Commission for the Protection of Minors, was the architect of the meeting. O’Malley had also been the organizer of Pope Benedict XVI’s first meeting with abuse victims, which happened in the United States in April 2008.
The victims stayed in the Santa Marta on Sunday night in advance of the meeting, and their first contact with Francis was during dinner that evening when he greeted each of them.
On Monday, the pope had breakfast with the group. The personal encounters started at 9:00 a.m. and went on until noon, giving each victim an estimated half-hour with Francis.
The Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, told reporters the victims had expressed gratitude for the meeting. He said victims described today’s encounter as “a first step on the path of reconciling with the Church and God”.
During his homily at Santa Marta, the pope didn’t mince words about the devastating effects of abuse.
“Sins of clerical sexual abuse against minors have a toxic effect on faith and hope in God,” he said.
“Some of you have held fast to faith, while for others the experience of betrayal and abandonment has led to a weakening of faith in God. Your presence here speaks of the miracle of hope.”
The pontiff also issued what amounted to an apology for a bungled response to the abuse crisis, asking “forgiveness for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves.”
“This led to even greater suffering,” he said.
Victims groups have criticized the pope for waiting 16 months after his election to hold a meeting, and branded the move a publicity stunt.
“Over the past 2,000 years, two popes have met with about two dozen clergy sex abuse victims. Very little has changed,” Mary Caplan, a leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said.
“A dozen popes could meet with 100 victims, and very little will change. These meetings are public relations coups for the Vatican and a distracting placebo for others.”
Lombardi insisted it was more than a photo-op.
“There’s a body of opinion that has never been interested on understanding the Church’s intention with these meetings,” he said. “Those who understand, see and listen to what the pope did and said today, will know without a doubt that it wasn’t a public relations event.”
Lombardi described the event instead as “a very profound, spiritual and kind dialogue with a pastor, a father, a person that loves and tries to understand deeply”.
On Sunday, the Commission for the Protection of Minors, created in December 2013, held its second meeting. Francis told members of the body that he’s counting on it to be a voice for “all minors, whatever religion they belong to.”
In addition to O’Malley, the commission also includes Marie Collins, an Irish woman abused by a hospital chaplain at the age of 13, a German psychologist, an Italian cannon law professor, as well as British and French psychiatrists and two priests.
Members said that in their Sunday meeting they discussed the names of possible new additions to the body, given that there are currently no Asian, African, or Latin-American representatives. They are expected to meet again in Rome in October.
Collins told the Globe that “accountability is a big priority” for the commission going forward, meaning developing ways in which the pope can impose discipline on bishops and other superiors who fail to apply anti-abuse guidelines.
When the commission was announced in March, Lombardi said its duties would include “education regarding the exploitation of children, discipline of offenders, civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”
This was not the first time a pope has met with survivors of clerical sexual abuse, as Benedict XVI held six such meetings over the eight years of his papacy. Francis’ first such meeting comes at a time when the Church’s response to the abuse scandals has once again been in the spotlight.
One week ago, the Vatican announced that Jozef Wesolowski, former papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic, had been expelled from the priesthood following charges of molesting minor boys during his diplomatic assignment.
It’s a rare penalty for a bishop, and the Vatican has announced that Wesolowski will be subject to criminal procedures under the laws of the Vatican City State as well as possible extradition to either Poland or the Dominican Republic if it’s requested.
Last week also brought a new intervention with the Legionaries of Christ, the controversial religious order that for many has become a symbol of the Church’s abuse scandals.
Pope Francis named a Jesuit priest and canon law expert, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, as a special assistant to advise the order’s leadership.
The Legionaries have been attempting to recover from revelations that their founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, was guilty of a wide range of sexual abuse and misconduct. Maciel was protected by the Vatican during the pontificate of John Paul II because his fund-raising prowess and his success in recruiting priests.
In early 2014, Vatican officials also have appeared before two different United Nations panels investigating the Church’s record on child abuse.
In March, officials told the Committee against Torture that 3,420 abuse cases had been handled over the past decade by Church prosecutors, with 848 priests losing their clerical status and 2,572 ordered to live a life of prayer and penance.
Critics, however, charge that the Church has failed to release the names of the priests defrocked or those currently being investigated.