Lizzy Davies in Rome
In his strongest condemnation yet of the way in which the church handled its abuse crisis, Francis asked victims for forgiveness not only on account of those who had perpetrated the abuse but also those senior figures whose “sins of omission” had exacerbated the problem.
“Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness,” he said. The sexual abuse of minors by priests and other men of the cloth required the church to “make reparation”.
The pontiff was delivering the powerful homily at a morning mass in the Vatican before a group of six abuse victims, including two from the United Kingdom. Sixteen months into his papacy, it was his first such encounter.
“It is something more than despicable actions,” Francis said of clerical sex abuse. “It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God. And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence.”
He added: “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”
It is not the first time that Francis has condemned abuse, but his words delivered at the Santa Martha guesthouse on Vatican grounds were particularly pointed towards those clerics who may have enabled the abuse to be “camouflaged with a complicity”.
“I beg your 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 on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” said Francis, according to a translation made available by the Vatican.
All bishops, added the pope, must exercise “the utmost care” in order to protect minors. “And they will be held accountable,” he warned.
Advocates of abuse victims have long complained that the church has yet to act to punish those bishops who contributed to cover-ups. And, reacting to the pope’s words on Monday, the main US victims’ group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (Snap), did not appear to have been won over, arguing that words were no substitute for concrete policy changes. The church needed a leader who was not only kind but had “the toughness to fire complicit church officials, it said in a statement.
“The pope says the church should ‘make reparations’ to victims. That’s secondary. Stopping abuse and protecting children comes first. And sadly, no child on earth is safer today because of this meeting.”
Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, declined to identify the six adults who saw Francis for around 30 minutes each on Monday, saying only that two were from the United Kingdom, two from Ireland and two from Germany.
One, however – Irish woman Marie Kane, 43 – broke her silence, telling Irish radio RTE the audience had been an important vindication. “It can’t go any higher than this,” she said.
“I felt it came from the heart,” she added. “For me he seemed very sincere and very sorry. And I think he realises he has a lot of changes to make. I’d like to believe he will, but, you know, I don’t know. We can only leave it with him and wait and see.”
She said she had prayed for change in the church while attending the mass with the pope. “You know, just do more,” she said. “Get these guys out of power that shouldn’t be there – that are guilty of cover-ups, and who covered up in my case, as well, and they know who they are, you know. So, yes, change. Change.”
The Vatican has been hauled over the coals repeatedly this year by two United Nations human rights panels, both of which unleaded harsh criticism on the church for its handling of the scandal, and urged it to do more to punish paedophile priests and their protectors, to support victims and to protect children.
Pope Francis has said he intends to find new ways forward, having set up a commission for the protection of minors, which met again in the Vatican on Sunday. The panel, which includes Irish abuse victim Marie Collins, has been dismissed by some other advocates as a superficial gesture.
They have found fault with the way the pope, 77, has approached the scandal since his election last March. While condemning the abuse, Francis has seemed at times reluctant to mount a full-frontal attack on the church, for instance riling many in March by claiming that no other organisation or institution in the world had “done more” to tackle child abuse. Some critics have also questioned why it took him more than a year into his papacy to meet with victims.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, Lombardi said the encounters had been “extremely broad and intense” and had left the victims with “the feeling that they had been listened to … with great attention”.
He rejected accusations that the event was nothing more than a publicity stunt, saying he was “not surprised” that some people could not understand the “positive intentions” of either Francis or Benedict XVI, who met with abuse victims on several occasions.
But, he said: “It is totally clear that it was not a public relations event. If you [had seen] the people coming out of this meeting with the pope you [would have seen] that this was not a public relations event.”