Pope Francis met with five survivors of sex abuse in Philadelphia on Sunday morning.
The half-hour meeting took place at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, on the very last day of Francis' six-day trip to the United States. Three female and two male survivors of abuse by clergy, teachers or relatives were part of the meeting, each accompanied by a family member or supporter.
Francis listened and spoke to the victims as a group and individually, according to a statement from the Holy See Press Office. He expressed his solidarity in their suffering, as well as his own "pain and shame" about the injury caused by clergy and church workers. He then prayed with them and thanked them for their "essential contribution to restore the truth and begin the journey of healing."
"I am deeply sorry for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed," Francis told the group in a speech. "Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you."
Francis also told the survivors that it was "disturbing" to know that bishops were in some cases the perpetrators of the abuse and pledged that both clergy and bishops would be held accountable for when they abused or failed to protect children.
The pope shared his reflections on the meeting during a talk with hundreds of bishops and seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
“God weeps for sexual abuse of children,” Francis said during the speech. “These cannot be maintained in secret. I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and that 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," he continued.
Three highly ranked members of the clergy were also present at the meeting -- Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston and chair of the pope's commission on sex abuse, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia Office for the protection of minors.
Chaput and the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Francis' spokesman, had both hinted that such a meeting would take place, although Chaput noted that such visits aren't usually publicized as stops in the pope's official itinerary.
Francis drew criticism from survivors earlier during his trip to the U.S., when he praised American bishops for their courage and "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" -- but neglected to issue an apology to victims. He only mentioned the abuse in vague terms, saying that the bishops faced "difficult moments in the recent history of the church."
Survivors called his message “insulting” and “hurtful.” The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an advocacy group, issued a statement saying it was "deeply disappointed" by Francis' remarks.
After hearing about the pope's Sunday meeting with survivors, SNAP Director David Clohessy called it a “feel good, do nothing” gesture.
"Literally countless kids are now vulnerable to abuse by clerics today. That’s where Francis should focus: stopping abuse and cover up now and in the future, not conveniently implying that only healing is needed now," Clohessy said in a statement. "He could meet with a thousand victims. But that wouldn’t safeguard a single child."
Allegations of clergy sex abuse first emerged in America in the 1980s. A high-profile case in 2002 turned the scandal into the "biggest crisis in the history of the American Church," The Associated Press reports. Victims accuse bishops of mishandling reports of sexual abuse by pedophile priests and shielding the molesters instead of removing them from the ministry.
Thousands of people have filed abuse claims against priests in the years after the scandal broke. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged to remove pedophile priests from duty and put in safeguards to protect children. The church has been forced to sell its assets to pay billions of dollars in settlements to survivors.
During his time as the head of the Catholic church, Francis has set up a papal sex abuse commission composed of 10 laypeople -- including two survivors. In June, Pope Francis approved a new tribunal, or church court, for judging bishops who failed to protect children from molesters.
This post has been updated with details about the pope's meeting with survivors and with comments from SNAP.
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