The pope has begged forgiveness from people abused by Catholic clergy in his first meeting with several survivors. Francis noted that the assaults had caused some victims to become addicted to drugs or commit suicide.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that Francis had met with three men and three women who clergy had sexually abused as children, listening to each privately for half an hour. In a private Mass, Francis apologized for the "sins and grave crimes."
"I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves," Francis said. "This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk," the pope added in his homily, delivered in his native Spanish.
Two Irish, two British and two German victims met with the pope. Francis also expressed regret at the victims he would never meet because their abuse had led them to commit suicide.
"These deaths of these so beloved children of God weigh upon the heart and my conscience and that of the whole church," Francis said on Monday.
Some people blame the church's celibacy policies for some of its problems.
'They lack courage'
In 2008, Benedict XVI became the first pope to meet with people abused by clergy. In May, weeks after the Vatican sexual-abuse advisory board announced it would introduce new accountability protocols, Francis promised he would begin meetings this summer.
Francis has pledged to pursue the "zero tolerance" policy followed by Benedict. Just last month, the Vatican defrocked an archbishop who had sexually abused boys in the Dominican Republic.
However, groups representing people abused by clergy point out that bishops rarely face punishment for shielding pedophiles. In January, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accused the Holy See of "consistently" covering up the crimes of child-molesting priests, prompting a diplomatic row with the Vatican, which flatly rejected the charge. In May, the UN Committee Against Torture accused the Roman Catholic Church of failing to comply with international law.
On Monday, the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the meetings Francis had with victims as "public relations coups for the Vatican" that "provide temporary, but false hope."
"In meetings, people can share knowledge," SNAP leader Mary Caplan said on Monday. "But Catholic officials don't lack knowledge. They lack courage - the courage to be honest, to 'out' and oust their criminal colleagues, both those who commit and conceal sexual violence against children."
"No meeting with victims - however many or compelling or articulate they may be - changes this fundamental, distressing and unhealthy reality," she added.
mkg/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)