Pope Francis Holds First Meeting With Abuse Victims

July 7, 2014

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness from six victims of clergy sexual abuse on Monday, during the first such meeting since he became pontiff.

“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,” the pope said during Mass with the victims.

Secrets of the Vatican, FRONTLINE’s investigation into the scandals that rocked Benedict’s papacy and the challenges facing Pope Francis as he looks to reform the Vatican, rebroadcasts tomorrow night on most PBS stations. Check your local listings here.

For decades, the Roman Catholic Church has been dogged by clergy sex abuse scandals, with critics accusing church officials of sheltering accused priests instead of referring them to civil authorities. In May, a UN report found that church officials still resist reporting these crimes and largely handle them internally, choosing to defrock priests or consign them to a life of prayer rather than handing them over to civil authorities.

Since becoming pontiff, Francis has taken some steps toward addressing clergy sexual abuse, including redefining sexual violence against children as a crime, and establishing an advisory board called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors tasked with developing protocols for the church in cases of sexual abuse.

The goal is to improve accountability for church officials who fail to report abuse allegations, said Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the advisory board, which consists of three clergy and five laypeople.

When Pope Francis met the victims on Monday, he apologized on behalf of those officials. “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,” he said.

“All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors,” Francis said, “and they will be held accountable.”

But church critics say that’s not enough. “We are glad the pope promises to ‘hold accountable’ Catholic officials who conceal abuse,” David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement Monday. “But he hasn’t done it yet… Saying and doing are different things. The first is easy, the second is hard.”

In June, the Vatican defrocked Jozef Wesolowski — an archbishop from Poland who had acted as its ambassador to the Dominican Republic — after he was accused of sexually abusing boys. Wesolowski, who has two months to appeal the decision, could still face a criminal trial in the Vatican under the laws strengthened by Francis. But church officials have declined to extradite him to face charges in the Dominican Republic, citing diplomatic immunity.

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