Pope Francis spent time on Sunday during the last day of his U.S. visit to meet with five adults who had been sexually abused by Roman Catholic clergy as children, declaring that he remains "overwhelmed with shame" at what was done to the victims. A survivor's group has criticized the meeting as a "feel good, do nothing" gesture.
"I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart. 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," Francis told bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania.
The Vatican leader reportedly met three women and two men who had been abused as children during a half-an-hour meeting. The pope spoke with the victims, listened to their stories, and prayed with them. He also thanked them for revealing the truth, and promised that the Church will do all it can to bring those guilty to justice.
"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," he said after the meeting.
"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."
The Survivors Network of those abused by Priests, which has long been critical of the Catholic Church, has said that Francis has held a number of meetings now with abuse victims, and has made numerous speeches and promises on the issue, but still too few clergy have been brought to justice.
"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 SNAP Director David Clohessy.
"A smart public relations move. That's what this meeting is. Nothing more," he added.
"It fits church officials' carefully-crafted narrative. Years ago, prelates pretended the abuse and cover up weren't happening. That no longer works. So now they pretend it's not happening NOW, that it's all 'in the past' and only healing remains to be done. They know, however, this is deceptive and dangerous."
In a press release Clohessy also brought up the Bible verse in Matthew 7:9-11: "Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?"
The Christian Post has noted that since becoming pope, Francis, has taken a number of steps to address the sex abuse scandal, including appointing a commission that includes victims, lay experts, clergy and bishops to make recommendations on Vatican policy.
He has also accepted the resignation of at least three U.S. bishops who were found to have mishandled abuse allegations, including two bishops in Minnesota, and one in Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.
Later on Sunday, Francis held a large open-air mass in Philadelphia before thousands of people to end his six-day visit to America.
The Vatican leader focused his speech on the importance of families, and said:
"Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which teaches children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil — a family which shows that the Spirit is alive and at work — will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation."
Francis arrived back at Rome Monday morning local time.