Six victims of sexual abuse by priests told their stories to Pope Francis in the Vatican on Monday. The pope has spoken openly about child abuse in the Catholic Church, but critics say he has taken too long to meet survivors.
Victims from his native Argentina have written to him to say they are pained over their exclusion from the meeting.
Six victims, two each from Ireland, Britain and Germany, attended the pope’s private morning Mass in his Vatican residence and then met him afterwards, according to officials.
Francis has said he would show zero tolerance for anyone in the Catholic Church who abused children, including bishops, and has compared sexual abuse of children by priests to a “Satanic Mass”.
But he has also come under fire from victims’ groups for saying in an interview this year that the Roman Catholic Church has done more than any other organisation to root out paedophiles in its ranks.
It is not clear why the pope waited nearly 16 months after his election in March 2013 to meet with sexual abuse victims, particularly as his predecessor, former Pope Benedict, met with them several times during his trips outside Italy.
“I think it’s very important that the pope meet with victims,” said Anne Doyle of Bishops Accountability, a U.S.-based documentation centre on abuse in the Catholic Church.
“We know that this pope is capable of compassion and his refusal to meet with sexual-abuse victims so far has been inconsistent with the mercy he has shown with so many marginalised. This is something that he had to rectify,” she said.
Victims’ groups have said the pope had an uneven record of dealing with abuse cases in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and victims from that country sent him a letter asking him why they were not invited to Monday’s meeting.
Pain in Argentina
“This fact pains us,” four victims of sexual abuse by priests wrote. “You must know the things that happen here and why the victims have been fighting for so many years, as well as the new cases that are surfacing.”
Doyle said the pope should quickly follow up with “several core actions” to show that the meeting was not merely ceremonial.
“He definitely must explicitly tell his bishops that all Church officials must report crimes and suspected crimes to civil authorities.” She said that in some developing countries, it is up to the victim to report sexual crimes.
The sexual abuse scandal has haunted the Catholic Church for more than two decades but became a major issue in the United States about 10 years ago.
Since then it has also disgraced local churches in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries and badly tarnished the Church’s image.
The Vatican says 3,420 credible accusations of sexual abuse by priests had been referred to the Vatican in the past 10 years and 824 clerics defrocked. The Church in the United States has paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims.
The commission advising the pope on the sexual-abuse crisis, which includes Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, met on Sunday and is expected to announce on Monday that it will take in more members from the developing world.