Pope Francis has met with victims of paedophile priests for the first time, as a Vatican commission moves to address the problem of clerical sex abuse in developing countries.
Six victims from Britain, Germany, and Ireland met with the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church at his private residence near Saint Peter’s Basilica, in a gesture aimed at expressing his closeness to the tens of thousands of people abused by priests globally.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from the Vatican, said that the pope also officiated a mass for his guests.
Also present at the meeting was Sean O’Malley, the cardinal of the US city of Boston, where a sex abuse scandal rocked the American Catholic church 10 years ago.
The private meeting – the first with abuse victims since Francis was elected in February last year – has been awaited by victim support groups who have criticised the Argentinian for not acting earlier.
Francis has been slow to speak out on the issue, which has hugely damaged the Catholic Church for over a decade, but in May he branded the sexual abuse of children by priests a crime and promised “zero tolerance”.
Monday’s encounter comes a day after a meeting of the commission set up by Francis to advise on the sexual abuse crisis and draw up protocols for the pope to consider.
The meeting is expected to open up the commission to experts from the Southern Hemisphere and the developing world, where paedophilia is largely a taboo subject and cases of abuse are much less likely to be reported.
‘Like a satanic mass’
In May, the UN Committee Against Torture said the Church had major failings in dealing with abuse cases, voicing concerns about a cover-up culture and calling for alleged paedophiles to be suspended immediately pending probe.
The pope gave his strongest response yet, saying “sexual abuse is such an ugly crime … it is like a satanic mass”.
Last year Francis strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition on crimes against minors to include paedophilia – though the legislation only covers clergy and lay people who work in or for the Vatican, not the universal Catholic Church.
A historic first trial against a former ambassador to the Vatican is expected to take place after Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski – former papal envoy to the Dominican Republic – was convicted of sex abuse by a Church tribunal last month and defrocked.
Vatican officials this year revealed that 3,420 abuse cases had been handled over the past decade by the Church’s Canon Law prosecutors, with 848 priests defrocked and a further 2,572 ordered to “live a life of prayer or penance”, for example in a monastery.
But the Vatican’s continued insistence on keeping its inquiries into suspect priests secret has angered victims and campaigners.