In a vast departure from his predecessor, Pope Francis met with six child abuse victims at the Vatican Monday. It's not only the first time Francis has officially met with victims sexually abused by priest during his papacy, but also the first time child abuse victims have met with a pope at the Vatican. The Pope's actions reveal a changing tide in the Catholic Church, which has long sought to minimize the incidences and effects of clerical abuse.
According to The Associated Press, Francis held private meetings at his Vatican residence with the victims — three men and three women who hailed from Ireland, Germany and Great Britain. Prior to the one-on-one meetings, Francis said a private Mass, where during the homily he asked the victims for their forgiveness as the leader of the Catholic Church:
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. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk.
The holy see also expressed feelings of "sorrow" for the "sins and grave crimes" brought upon the victims by members of the clergy.
Early in his papacy, Francis received criticism for staying mum on clergy sex abuse. His first crack down on clerical abuse came in July 2013, when he modified Vatican law to include sex crimes against children and increased the penalty.
Last December, Francis extended his compassion to the victims and called on Catholics to support them on their "path of healing." But the holy see didn't really publicly address the issue head-on until in March, right after the United Nations released a scathing report on the Catholic Church and its failure to protect its children. The report concluded that the pope "has systematically given precedence to the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims."
Francis objected to the U.N. findings, telling an Italian newspaper in March:
The cases of abuse are awful because they leave profound wounds. ... The Catholic Church is maybe the only institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to be attacked.
Although Francis and the Vatican chose not to cooperate in the U.N. investigation, the popular pope has been trying to take matters into his own hands. The private meetings and Mass are the latest actions taken by the Vatican to rectify both its decades-long mishandling of clerical abuse and its treatment of the victims.
In fact, the meetings came just a day after a commission assigned to investigate clerical abuse in the developing world held its inaugural meeting — a sign that the Vatican is ready to take this issue seriously. Created in December 2013, the Vatican commission will set up new initiatives to protect minors and block clergy abuse from happening. The committee will work on new codes of conducts for clergy and improve their screenings of future priests.
But for victims of clergy abuse, these actions — including Monday's meetings — may not be enough.
"As he has done for millions over the past year, today Pope Francis seems to have won the hearts of six clergy sex abuse victims with his humble, kind personality," Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. "Sadly, however, kids and Catholics need a leader who combines these traits with the toughness to fire complicit church officials."