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Pope meets abuse victims, promises accountability

Pope Francis spoke at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., on Sunday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis met privately with five survivors of sexual abuse Sunday morning. Shortly afterward, looking stricken, he told an international gathering of bishops the victims’ stories of suffering were “engraved in my heart” and that he would hold those responsible to account.

“I’m overwhelmed by the shame that people who were in charge of caring for those young ones raped them and caused them great damage,” he said. “I regret this profoundly.

“God weeps,” he said.

The 30-minute meeting — coordinated and attended by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the leader of the Catholic Church in Boston — came in the final hours of Francis’ six-day trip to the United States, an otherwise exultant visit in which the pope greeted ecstatic crowds; spent time with homeless people, immigrants, and prisoners; and argued forcefully before Congress and the United Nations for policies to promote a more peaceful and inclusive world.

The trip concluded Sunday with a Mass that drew hundreds of thousands of the faithful, the biggest crowd of his trip. Earlier in the day, Francis visited prisoners — something he has done on other trips — offering them his blessing.

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While he received a glowing reception through most of his US visit, the comments the pope made in Washington and New York on the abuse scandal left some disillusioned, particularly abuse survivors.

Many were angered by the pope’s expression of sympathy for bishops, priests, and nuns who have had to deal with fallout from the abuse crisis. At one point, Francis commended bishops for their courage. Some victims felt that they, not the church’s hierarchy, deserved the words of sympathy.

Even after the pope’s one-on-one meeting with victims early Sunday, some continued to express dismay that Francis and the church he leads were not doing more to repair the damage done by the abuse crisis. The scandal has had a devastating effect on the American church since it first erupted in Boston 13 years ago.

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The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said Sunday’s meeting took place between 8 and 9 a.m. at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and included three women and two men who were abused as children by clergy, family members, or teachers. Each brought a friend or relative for support.

Lombardi said Francis spoke to the survivors, listened to their stories, and prayed with them. According to text of his remarks released by the Vatican, Francis told the group he was particularly sorry for the times when they spoke out and the church refused to believe them.

“Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you,” he said.

He later told the bishops that sexual abuse could no longer be kept a secret.

“I commit to a careful oversight of the church to ensure that youth are protected, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable,” he said.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said that until Sunday Francis had not handled the issue well.

“But I think today he finally hit the right note,” Reese said, “telling victims how sorry he was for what happened to them, the violation of trust they had in these people who should have been helping them instead of hurting them, not just apologizing for what priests did, but for what the bishops did not do.”

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Francis has created a commission on protecting minors from abuse and a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for failing to root out abusive priests.

Victim advocacy groups said they wanted Francis to take stronger action against abuse, including more disclosure of the names and crimes of predator priests and any bishops who protected them, as well as robust efforts to hold bishops around the world accountable for ridding their dioceses of abusive priests.

“Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims?” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, in a statement. “No.

“A smart public relations move,” Clohessy said. “That’s what this meeting is. Nothing more.”

Aides to O’Malley, who leads Francis’ sexual abuse commission and is one of the pope’s closest US advisers, said the cardinal was not available for comment Sunday. But in an interview last week, O’Malley said Francis is “certainly very committed to zero tolerance” and cares deeply about the issue.

The timing of the meeting with abuse survivors also raised questions for some about the priority of survivors in the pope’s consciousness. Philadelphia was the last city on the schedule.

In some ways, though, it made sense that Francis would want to address the issue here, in a diocese that has been particularly troubled by the abuse scandal.

Two grand juries, one in 2005 and another in 2012, reported extensive instances of abusive priests in the archdiocese, leading 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.

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Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., a former Boston priest who now leads the US bishops’ communications committee, said meeting with survivors was not the point of the pope’s trip to Philadelphia, even though he took time to do so.

He added: “You could not have found a stronger statement on the position of the Holy Father than you heard today.”

Some survivors cringed at the prelates’ decision to include survivors who were abused outside the church in the meeting.

Lombardi said they were invited because the church sees the problem as one of the family and society as well, and the church wants to help all victims of abuse and their families to heal.

But Phil Saviano, a clergy abuse survivor who lives in Roslindale, called that choice “an insult.”

Clergy abuse is unlike other forms of abuse, he said, because it destroys the spiritual lives of children. And it was the Catholic Church’s institutional protection of abusive priests that exposed so many children to more abuse.

“There are tens of thousands of clergy abuse victims in this country” that Francis could have spoken with, he said. “It seems like he’s dodging the issue.”

In further remarks to the bishops, Francis lamented a culture in which sincere friendships and trust had collapsed into consumerism and self-promotion, resulting in what he called “radical loneliness.”

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He proposed marriage and family as the solution to this modern crisis and said the role of pastors was not to endlessly explain the church’s teachings, but rather to help young people choose family life, and to help families through difficulties and challenges, “to be present to them, sharing their difficulties and joys.”

At the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, he greeted prisoners “as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”

He encouraged them to consider their sentences as opportunities for rehabilitation, “which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community.”

The Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway marked the end of Francis’ visit. It was a final burst of brilliant color and soaring choir music before the pontiff’s plane took off into the night sky for Rome.

“Pray for me,” he said as the Mass drew to a close. “Don’t forget.”


Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com. Ines San Martin of Crux contributed to this report.