Pope Francis to Abuse Victims: You Are Ministers of Mercy (UPDATED)

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(Updates throughout.)

PHILADELPHIA—This morning Pope Francis met with five victims of sexual abuse for about an hour. He was joined by Cardinal Seán O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and chairman of the pope's commission for the protection of minors, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's commission for the protection of minors. 

"Words cannot fully express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered," Francis told the victims, three women and two men who were abused by clergy, family members or teachers. "I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those you trusted." Francis apologized for "times when you or your family spoke out to report the abuse but you were not heard or believed." He continued: "Please know that the Holy Father hears and believes you." Francis also expressed "regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children," and pledged to hold priests and bishops "accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children."

During his visit to the United States, Pope Francis has made only passing reference to the scandal. During a service with bishops in Washington on Wednesday, he praised "the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the recent history of the church in this country without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.” And on Thursday he said to priests and religious in New York that “you have suffered greatly in the recent past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the church.”

Asked why the pope waited until his last day in the United States to meet with abuse victims, Holy See spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, said: “You only have to understand that the journey had different stages and occasions. If he had a meeting with bishops, he had many things to say to the bishops, not only to speak of sexual abuse.” He continued: “This is seen today also as a problem of families, and of the society.”

Before delivering his address about the family this morning, Pope Francis announced to an audience of bishops and cardinals that he had met with victims. “I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart," Francis said in Spanish, according to a transcript provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm. I am profoundly sorry. God weeps.

The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.

You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.

Marie Collins, a member of the pope's commission for the protection of minors, criticized the "old style" in which Francis met with victims—in a group setting, with other bishops attending. She called it "disappointing after last year's private meeting" with victims. 

During a press briefing Sunday afternoon, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ, referred to that meeting, explaining that Francis was able to spend "a half-hour to an hour with each survivor." This time, he continued, "he didn't have as much time."

Lombardi also clarified that the reason Francis met with men and women who suffered abuse at the hands of family members and educators was that "this is a larger perspective of the responsibility of the church toward young people." Likewise, the pope's commission for the protection of minors would be oriented toward not only those abused by clergy, but toward all minors who have been abused.

"Like most survivors," Collins wrote on Twitter, "it is the actions following the words I feel are most important."

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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