PHILADELPHIA: Pope Francis on Sunday (Monday in Manila) used the last day of his historic US tour to meet victims of the church’s devastating sex abuse scandal, saying “God weeps” for their suffering, and pledging to hold those responsible to account.
One rare criticism of the pope during his six-day trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia, which ended Sunday with a giant open-air mass, was that he did not have such a meeting on his public agenda.
Francis met the three women and two men, with their relatives at the San Carlo Borromeo seminary, the Vatican said in a statement.
The five adults were sexually abused as children by members of the clergy, relatives or teachers — a wide background chosen to reflect the pontiff’s determination to help victims of all abuse.
One of the victims was not Catholic, the Vatican said.
Also in the room was Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of a commission set up by the Pope to protect minors.
The head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics spoke to the visitors, listened to their stories, greeted them individually and prayed with them.
He said he shared in their suffering, and he felt particular pain and shame for injuries caused by clergy or church workers.
“God weeps,” the pope told a gathering of bishops afterward. “The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held secret.”
“I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry,” Francis said.
“I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.”
Some 6,400 Catholic clergy have been accused of abusing minors in the United States between 1950 and 1980, and campaigners fears that the number could be higher.
Experts speaking at the Vatican said in 2012 the number of abused American minors is probably close to 100,000.
Philadelphia is one of the cities where the scandal was most serious.
The new commission set up by the pope is determined to take care, not only of victims of clerical abuse, but abuse victims in general, including those of other religions, said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
The pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, met victims of the sex abuse scandal in Boston in 2008.
Without Sunday’s audience in Philadelphia, victims of the scandal would have been extremely disappointed.
But activists complained that Francis is offering no real action to stop abuse from taking place.
“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? No,” said David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests.
“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.”
The Holy See has been shaken to its foundations by the scandal which cast a shadow around the world.
The Vatican is a signatory of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.
Last year, a UN report slammed the Vatican’s handling of the allegations which it said involved alleged sexual abuse of “tens of thousands” of children worldwide.
“The committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which has led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators,” the report said.
Since the first revelations in the 2000s, the Church has spent $3 billion on legal costs and rehabilitation for offenders, according to watchdog Bishop Accountability. Thousands of Catholic Americans left the church.