Pope Francis met with victims of clergy sex abuse Sunday morning and vowed “careful oversight” of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church to ensure “all responsible will be held accountable.”
Francis held a private meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse shortly before speaking candidly with hundreds of bishops and seminarians about the issue that has rocked the Catholic Church.
Officials say the meeting happened at the pope's request and was held on the seminary grounds where he is staying.
"God weeps for the sexual abuse of children," he told 300 bishops at a Philadelphia-area seminary, according to a translation of his speech. "This cannot be maintained in secret, and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and all responsible will be held accountable."
He added that survivors have “become true heralds of mercy."
“Humbly we owe each of them our gratitude,” he said in front of both bishops and seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennslyvania.
The pope met with three women and two men who suffered abuse when they were minors by clergy, family members or teachers, according to his press office. Each person was accompanied by a family member or support person. Also in attendance were Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley, who is the chair of the pope’s commission for protection of minors; Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Philadelphia diocese office for the protection of minors.
According to the pope’s officials, he listened to their stories both as a group and individually, and then prayed with them and "expressed his solidarity in sharing their suffering, as well as his own pain and shame in especially the case of injury caused them by clergy or church workers."
"Is a child anywhere on earth safer now that a pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No," said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "A smart public relations move. That's what this meeting is. Nothing more. It fits church officials' carefully-crafted narrative."
SNAP president Barbara Blaine, of Chicago said that since 2001, all church officials have been ordered to send the files of those accused of sex abuse to the Vatican.
"And we believe Pope Francis should open those files and turn them over to police," Blaine said. "And we think he should order every bishop and the head of a religious community to do the same because that will immediately allow law enforcement officials to investigate and potentially arrest and jail those sexual perpetrators. They should not be given safe haven and sanctuary within the Catholic church."
She said SNAP wants the pope to meet publicly with victims instead of in private.
"He won’t publicly meet with victims who would potentially question him on his record, question what he’s doing to actually protect the children," Blaine said. "If you notice they are always devout and the response is carefully scripted. Our concern is that that does not make children safer."
The group's director of victims outreach, Barbara Dorris, is in Philadelphia, with a photograph of herself at 6, the age she said she was raped by her parish priest and best friend's uncle.
"The pope can talk about healing, but what we need is prevention and protection," she said. "I'm an adult. I can heal myself. But children are at risk."
In Center City Philadelphia, as people streamed toward Benjamin Franklin Parkway where the pope will celebrate a public Mass Sunday afternoon, many of the faithful said they were pleased to hear the pontiff met with victims of priest sexual abuse.
"I think it's very much needed for there to be healing," Kathleen Korczakowski, of Ambler, Pennsylvania, said.
Kathy Nealis, of Dresher, Pennsylvania, who was also headed toward the Parkway Sunday morning to find a spot to watch the Mass, echoed that sentiment.
"I think that the church has come a long way with the healing process," she said. "Nobody's perfect. There's forgiveness. We ask for forgiveness, and by the grace of God we get it."
Monsignor William Lynn, a former church leader in Philadelphia, was the first clergy member in the country to be prosecuted in the scandal. Lynn was accused of keeping priests in the church after allegations of abuse surfaced. He was convicted of endangering the welfare of children in 2012, but appellate courts have gone back and forth as to whether the three-year sentence should stand.
Lynn was last housed in Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility -- the jail where Pope Francis will meet with inmates on Sunday. The 64-year-old was transferred to another prison ahead of the visit.
On Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Francis had praised American bishops for their "generous commitment" to helping victims.
His remarks at the Washington cathedral prompted criticism from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who countered that bishops had displayed "cowardice and callousness" in dealing with victims who had came forward.
While worldwide in scope, the sex abuse scandal has been especially painful in the United States, where thousands of cases were reported.
In Philadelphia, a grand jury investigation alleged 37 priests were kept on assignments after allegations of abuse surfaced. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia suspended 27 priests in the report's wake.
Pope Visits Jail, Hugs Inmates
Francis' speech was the first public event on the last day of his first U.S. tour. His trip culminates later in the day with a much-anticipated Mass in downtown Philadelphia, but not before making another public appearance -- one that focuses on another key area of concern for the spiritual leader: prison ministry.
Francis talked to a group of inmates and their families at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in northeast Philadelphia. In the afternoon he will celebrate Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with thousands of pilgrims.
During his jail visit, the pope met with 100 prisoners, all between the ages of 18 and 21, inside the facility gym. Over 3,000 other inmates watched the Pope as he greeted the prisoners via an internal transmission.
He delivered a speech in Spanish before meeting with more prisoners, their families and prison staff members.
"This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society," he said, according to a translation of the remarks. "All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. A rehabilitation which everyone seeks and desires: inmates and their families, correctional authorities, social and educational programs. A rehabilitation which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community."
Francis has made prison ministry a focus of his pontificate. He meets frequently with inmates and has washed prisoners' feet during pre-Easter rituals. In July, he visited a notorious Bolivian prison where he urged inmates to help one another and exhorted staff to rehabilitate prisoners, not humiliate them.
Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla requested the visit after Archbishop Charles Chaput celebrated Mass at the prison in January. There are 8,000 prisoners at the facility - 1,200 of them identify as Catholic.
"There are going to be millions on the parkway that will see a glimpse of the pope," Giorla said. "There are going to be a couple hundred people in here who will meet with him face-to-face and converse with him, and that’s pretty astounding."
A hand-selected group of inmates at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility spent weeks building a 6-foot chair just for the pontiff that they hand-carved out of walnut. During his visit, the pope sat in the chair. Anthony Newman, assistant director of a vocational program in the Philadelphia prisons, designed the gift for Francis and has been overseeing its construction.
"The chair is beautiful," the pope told the inmates before leaving. "Thank you very much for the hard work."