Pope Francis has begged for forgiveness in his first meeting with Catholics sexually abused by members of the clergy and gone further than any of his predecessors by vowing to hold bishops accountable for their handling of paedophile priests.
Abuse victims and their advocates have long demanded that higher-ups be made to answer for the decades-long cover-ups of rape and molestation of youngsters in a scandal that has rocked the church and dismayed its worldwide flock of 1.2 billion.
The pope celebrated a private Mass with six victims – two each from Ireland, Britain and Germany – at his Vatican residence on Monday, and spent the rest of the morning listening to their accounts, one-on-one.
“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,” Francis said, according to the Associated Press news agency.
“I beg your forgiveness, too, 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,” the pope said.
“This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused, and it endangered other minors who were at risk.”
But, when speaking of accountability, he made no mention of what countless victims and their families around the globe have waited years to hear: whether bishops and other prelates who shuffled child-molesting priests from parish to parish or didn’t inform police and prosecutors would be fired or demoted.
“All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable,” Francis said, delivering his homily in his native Spanish.
The survivors were allowed to bring a relative or friend and an interpreter.
One of the six victims, Marie Kane, 43, who was abused by a priest for three years while a teenager in Ireland, said she asked Francis to remove an Irish cardinal, Sean Brady, from his post because of how he handled abuse allegations.
Kane told the Irish Times newspaper that she told Francis a “cover-up is still happening, and you have the power to make these changes.”
She quoted him as replying, “It was difficult to make these changes.”
When Brady turns 75 next month, he will be required to offer his resignation to the pontiff, who can accept or ask him to stay on.
Many faithful, especially in the US, were outraged when Boston Archbishop Bernard Law, accused of shielding abusive priests during his tenure, was given a prestigious post at a Rome basilica in 2004 by Pope John Paul II instead of being demoted.