PHILADELPHIA – Pope Francis told U.S. bishops and seminarians on Sunday that he had met with sex abuse survivors. “God weeps,” he said in remarks ahead of a prepared speech on the family.
Five adults who were abused as minors – three women and two men – were at the meeting along with their families, according to the Vatican’s press office. The survivors were abused by clergy, family members, or their teachers.
“I have in my heart, the stories of suffering and pain of the minors who were sexually abused by priests. And, it continues to overwhelm me with shame that the people who were charged with taking care of these tender ones violated that trust and caused them a profound pain. God weeps.” Pope Francis said at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, according to a translation of the Spanish remarks by The Washington Post.
“The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept in secret any longer.” he continued.
Pope Francis said he was committed to “a careful vigiliance of the church to ensure that youth are protected, and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable.”
Survivors in the U.S. have mixed feelings on Pope Francis’s record on the topic since becoming pope, with some praising him, and others seeing his statements and actions as inadequate. Some survivor activists have been urging Pope Francis to substantively address the sex abuse crisis during his visit.
And while he has discussed the topic this week, many of those same groups found his comments lacking because he emphasized supporting the clergy’s reforms, rather than the suffering of victims.
“As with all things related to the Catholic Church, you have to listen to the words and then you have to watch what they do,” said John Salveson, a clergy sex abuse survivor, prominent activist and president of The Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse.
Salveson said the Vatican has been aware of possible solutions “for years, if not decades.” They include releasing the identity of priests who have been defrocked for abusing children; involving civil authorities when there is abuse, particularly in other countries, and extending the statute of limitations on clergy sex abuse, he said.
“The reason this all continued is that these priests don’t get prosecuted and the bishops who hide them don’t get prosecuted because they are protected by the statute of limitations,” he said.
The pope’s outreach is useful to the extent it eases victims’ suffering, said Marie Collins, a member of an advisory commission the pope set up to help him improve the church’s response to abuse.
“If it’s going to help their healing, then it’s a positive experience for them. It’s a very positive experience for them,” said Collins, a clergy abuse survivor from Ireland. But, Collins added, the meeting “really is not connected [to the] work for the future of child protection.”
Instead, she said, the pope’s decision to set up a papal commission advising him on how to handle the issue going forward was “the most positive change to happen” so far.
Robert Hoatson, who held signs in support of victims of abuse in front of Philadelphia’s basilica over the weekend, said on Sunday that he felt the pope’s comments brushed too quickly over the serious issue. “This is getting more bizarre,” said Hoatson, who works with victims. ” It’s going to cause more distress, more traumatization, re-abuse,” he said, “because it seemed like a side note.”
“It was as if he added this to his talk without telling the bishops what he is going to do, including removing some of [the bishops],” Hoatson said.
The meeting happened at the seminary at about 8 a.m., just before Pope Francis’s remarks, according to Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. The meeting lasted for a half an hour.
“Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered,” Pope Francis told the survivors, according to a copy of his remarks released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “I’m profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted,” he said.
“For those who were abused by a member of the clergy, I am deeply sorry for the times when you or your family spoke out, to report the abuse, but you were not heard or believed,” the pope said to survivors, “Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you. I deeply regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children. It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops were even abusers.”
He pledged that “clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.”
Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and a member of the Vatican’s advisory commission on child abuse; Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput; and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia’s office for the protection of minors, accompanied Pope Francis to the meeting.
The Pope spoke with visitors, listening to their stories and offering them a few words together as a group and later listening to each one individually.
Immediately after the remarks at the seminary, the assembled clergy praised the pope’s remarks on the sexual abuse scandal. “I thought it was very, very good and it was very clear. And from that point of view, it was an excellent visit among so many excellent visits,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Vice President of the USCCB.
He said “there is a good deal of work already being done around the church [on the matter]. To the extent that we will not let up on what we said we would do.”
He declined to discuss the context of delivering the remarks in a city that still bears the scars of the sex abuse scandal.
For days, reporters have asked Lombardi whether Pope Francis was planning to meet with clergy sex abuse survivors. And for days, Lombardi has given a similar answer: if such a meeting were to happen, the media certainly wouldn’t be told about it ahead of time.
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI met with survivors in the United States in a similarly private way. Francis embraced survivors in 2014 at the Vatican.
In his address to U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington earlier this week, Pope Francis praised the “courage” of the bishops for seeking reforms following the scandal, a comment that angered some groups who felt the pope should have spoken more directly about victims’ suffering and bishop accountability in his first remarks on the subject in the U.S.
The Sunday remarks and meeting with survivors were nothing more than a “smart public relations move,” said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests.
“Is a child anywhere on Earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No,” Clohessy added.
Pa. state Rep. Mark Rozzi, himself a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, is advocating for a bill in the state legislature that would lift the statute of limitations for two years so victims can testify about clergy abuse.
Hearing the pope say “God weeps” about sexual abuse, in his own state, was heartening to him.
“It’s definitely encouraging that he did take time to meet with the victims of clergy abuse. You know, his words definitely have an impact. But now we need action to follow those words,” Rozzi said. “That would be true justice.”
Karen Heller, Anthony Olivo, Frances Sellers, and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report, which has been updated multiple times.