VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis begged forgiveness Monday in his first meeting with Catholics sexually abused by members of the clergy and went further than any of his predecessors by vowing to hold bishops accountable for their handling of pedophile 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, 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.
“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 in 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.
The U.S.-based victims group SNAP, or the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reacted skeptically.
“We are glad the pope promises to ‘hold accountable’ Catholic officials who conceal abuse,” SNAP Director David Clohessy said in statement. “But he hasn’t done it yet, not in Rome, nor in Buenos Aires. Saying and doing are different things. The first is easy, the second is hard.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, a director of another victims advocacy group, BishopAccountability.org, said the pope’s meeting with the three men and three women was still a positive step.
“The pope made a significant and historic promise to discipline bishops who fail to respond adequately to child sexual abuse,” she said.
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 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.
Francis has also been criticized for how he handled abuse cases when archbishop of Buenos Aires, specifically for not meeting with victims and for denying he had handled the case of an abusive priest.
Many faithful, especially in the U.S., 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.
Francis acknowledged that the abuse drove some victims to addiction and even suicide and said the deaths “weigh upon the heart and my conscience and that of the whole church.”
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the six first met with the pope on Sunday during dinner at the Vatican.
Francis had probably already met another sex abuse survivor, Marie Collins, an Irish woman serving on a commission he created to help draw up a strategy against sex abuse.
A spokesman for German victims, Norbert Denef, dismissed Monday’s meeting as “nothing more than a PR event.” Several meetings that Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI held with victims starting in 2008 generated similar reactions.