VATICAN CITY (AFP) ― Pope Francis said the suicides of sex abuse victims weighed on his conscience on Monday, speaking of the “terrible darkness” inside the church as he met with survivors and pledged to crack down on pedophilia.
At his long-awaited first meeting with victims, the pope reached out to the tens of thousands of people abused by priests globally, telling them he was sorry for the “grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you.”
Three male and three female victims from Britain, Germany and Ireland slept in the pope’s residence near St. Peter’s Basilica before breakfasting with him and spending half an hour each with him.
Francis said there was “no place in the church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses” adding: “I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”
In a moving speech written in his native Spanish, the 77-year-old spoke of the “toxic effect” of the abuse scandal, which he admitted had ruined many lives.
“I look at you and... I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons,” he said.
He said “these wounds are a source of deep and often unrelenting emotional and spiritual pain, and even despair,” and that the psychological pain caused by abuse meant that some had to face “the terrible tragedy of the death of a loved one by suicide.”
“The deaths of these so beloved children of God weigh upon the heart and my conscience and that of the whole church,” the 77-year-old said.
The victims, who had also dined in the Casa Santa Martha Vatican guesthouse where the pope lives on Sunday night, were not identified to the press.
The private meetings came amid criticism that Francis has been slow to deal with a scandal hugely damaging to the Catholic Church, and it was hoped they would “open a constructive path” toward “healing the wounds” of victims, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
The first such meeting since Francis was elected in February last year, it had been hotly awaited by victim support groups who have criticized the Argentinian for not acting sooner on an issue which has scarred the church’s image for over a decade.
Though in May the pope had branded the sexual abuse of children by priests a crime comparable to a “satanic Mass” and promised “zero tolerance,” survivors questioned why a pope famed for his compassion had not met with victims.
Last year Francis strengthened Vatican laws on child abuse, broadening the definition on crimes against minors to include pedophilia ― though the legislation only covers clergy and lay people who work in or for the Vatican, not the universal Catholic Church.
A historic first trial against a former ambassador to the Vatican is expected to take place after Polish archbishop Jozef Wesolowski ― former papal envoy to the Dominican Republic ― was convicted of sex abuse by a church tribunal last month and defrocked.
At the end of last year he also set up an abuse commission to advise him on protocols ― which on Monday he called on for “support” in tackling the scandal.
In fierce language intended to hit clerical sinners hard, he said pedophile priests “profane the very image of God in whose likeness we were created.”
The church “asks the grace to weep before the execrable acts of abuse which have left lifelong scars,” he said.
But the Vatican’s continued insistence on keeping its inquiries into suspect priests secret has angered victims and campaigners.
In May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture said the church had major failings in dealing with abuse cases, voicing concerns about a cover-up culture and calling for alleged pedophiles to be suspended immediately pending investigation.
Ahead of the meeting with victims, a former Mexican priest released an open letter to the pope written with several sex abuse victims, calling on Francis to “prohibit the transfer of pedophile priests” from one community to another.
Alberto Athie, who was forced by his bishop to step down for having defended victims abused by the late founder of the Legion of Christ Marcial Maciel, insisted the pontiff should “hand all sexual aggressors, as well as their protectors, over to the civil authorities.”