For only second time, Francis meets abuse survivors, says 'God weeps'

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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For only the second time in his two-and-a-half year papacy, Pope Francis has met with survivors of clergy sexual abuse during his trip to the U.S. and has told them he is "profoundly sorry" for their suffering.

The Vatican announced the meeting in a brief press bulletin Sunday, saying Francis had met with five survivors of abuse that morning while staying at the St. Charles Borromeo seminary in Philadelphia.

The pontiff met with the survivors as a group and then one-by-one, praying with them and promising a renewed commitment to prevent abuse and provide accountability for those who covered up crimes, the Vatican said.

"Words cannot express my sorrow for the abuse you suffered," the pope told the survivors, according a text of his remarks for the meeting released by the U.S. bishops' conference.

"You are precious children of God who should always expect our protection, our care and our love," he said. "I am profoundly sorry that your innocence was violated by those who you trusted."

"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," said Francis. "Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you."

"I deeply regret that some bishops that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children," he said. "It is very disturbing to know that in some cases bishops even were abusers. I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children." 

The Vatican confirmed Francis' meeting with survivors just moments after the pope himself had addressed the issue of abuse in brief, unscritpted remarks before an address he was giving Sunday morning to a group of global bishops at the seminary. The bishops are in Philadelphia for the Vatican sponsored World Meeting of Families.

Speaking slowly and in a muted tone, the pontiff said: "I carry engraved in my heart the stories of suffering and pain of the minors who were sexually abused by priests."

"I remain overwhelmed by shame that those persons who were charged with the tender care of these little ones violated them and caused them great harm," said Francis.

"I lament it profoundly," he continued. "God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors cannot be kept secret any longer. I commit myself to the zealous watchfulness of the church to protect minors and I promise that all those responsible will be held accountable."

"The survivors of abuse have become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy," he said. "Humbly we owe each of them and their families our gratitude for their immense courage in making Christ’s light to shine upon the evil of sexual abuse of children."

"I say this because I have just met with a group of persons abused as children, who are helped and accompanied here in Philadelphia with a special care by Archbishop Chaput," said Francis. "It seemed necessary to communicate this to you."

The following four paragraphs were added at 1:18 p.m. EST.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said at a press briefing Sunday that two or three of the poeple meeting the pope had been abuse by clergy, while the rest had survived abuse in familial or educational contexts. At least one in the group, he said, was not Catholic.

Lombardi also said it was significant that the pontiff spoke about the issue in the bishops' meeting Sunday as that meeting was attended by a group of about 300 international prelates.

The problem of sexual abuse, Lombardi said, "is a universal problem in the universal church and everywhere."

"It was probably a good occasion for the pope to approach also this issue and to inform the bishops of the entire world about this instance," he said. "The perspective of the church on this problem is obviously universal.”

Francis remarks on sexual abuse and his meeting with survivors comes after he had sustained some criticism during his three-city, six-day visit to the U.S.

Critics had said early remarks he had made on the issue in meetings in Washington and New York City had seemed tone-deaf by praising bishops and priests for their alleged work in handling abuse but not acknowledging the pain of survivors.

Speaking to some 300 U.S. bishops Wednesday, Francis told them: "I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you."

"I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims -- in the knowledge that in healing we too are healed -- and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated," he said then.

On Thursday, Francis told priests, brothers and sisters at a prayer service in New York that he knows they "suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members."

Francis is only known to have met with abuse survivors on one other occasion, at the Vatican in July 2014. In contrast, Pope Benedict XVI met with survivors on at least five occasions -- on trips to the U.S., Australia, Malta, the U.K., and Germany.

The pope is also not known to have ever met with survivors during his time as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina

One survivors' advocate said that while Francis' meeting Sunday was a "positive step," it "cannot substitute for actual change."

"Pope Francis needs to hear survivors' stories," said Anne Barrett Doyle, Co-Director of the sexual abuse tracking website

"Stories have the power to open minds and hearts, and this is an influence the Pope needs, as shown by his tone-deaf message to US bishops on Wednesday," she said.

"The pope speaks of healing," said Barrett Doyle. "Let's hope he realizes that healing cannot be divorced from accountability."

Francis has been visiting the U.S. since Tuesday, spending time in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. He returns to Rome Sunday afternoon.


The Vatican said the pope was accompanied during his meeting with survivors Sunday by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the head of the Vatican's new commission for the safeguarding of minors, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who leads the archdiocesan office for the protection of minors, also attended.

The Vatican said the meeting lasted about half an hour and ended with the pontiff giving his apostolic blessing.

Francis ended his remarks in the survivors' meeting by comparing their situation to the Gospel story of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

The disciples, he said, "asked Jesus to stay with them."

"Like the disciples, I humbly beg you and all survivors of abuse to stay with us, to stay with the Church, and that together, as pilgrims on the journey of faith, we might find our way to the Father," said Francis.

Outside the seminary chapel following Francis’s address this morning, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, vice president of the U.S. bishops' conference and archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas, praised the pope for meeting with victims of clergy abuse.

“I would say that the pope was clear what he sees is necessary to do in the sex abuse issue,” DiNardo told NCR.

The church has done a good deal of work already on the sex abuse crisis, and it is important that church leaders continue the efforts and not let up on the work done so far, he said.

[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. Natalia Imperatori-Lee, an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, helped with translation of the pope's remarks. ]

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