PHILADELPHIA - Pope Francis Sunday addressed the wrenching issue of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, apologizing directly to victims and vowing before hundreds of bishops from around the world to hold accountable both perpetrators and those within the church who shield them.
"I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm," Francis said at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, soon after meeting privately with victims of sexual abuse and their families. "I am profoundly sorry. God weeps."
The 300 bishops in the seminary's vaulted sanctuary -- gathered in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families -- had jovially greeted the pope during his entrance moments before, cheering and clapping. As soon as he introduced the topic of sexual abuse, the room gradually fell silent, as the message flowed from his slowly paced Argentine Spanish to the various languages into which it was being translated through wireless earpieces the bishops wore.
"The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret," Francis said. "I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability to all."
The remarks, on the final day of the pope's trip to Cuba and the United States, represented the first time during the journey that Francis pointedly addressed the issue of sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church. He touched on the topic Wednesday at a gathering of bishops in Washington, D.C., crediting them for their "generous commitment to bring healing to victims" -- words that brought criticism from some who had endured such abuse and organizations that advocate for them.
The three women and two men he met with Sunday were abused as children by members of the clergy, or by family members or teachers, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The pope "listened to their stories, greeted them individually and prayed with them," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. The meeting took place at the seminary between 8 and 9 a.m. and lasted about a half-hour.
"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," Francis said at the private meeting to the victims of clergy sexual abuse, according to a text released by the bishops' conference. "Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you."
Lombardi said the pope was joined in the meeting by Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the commission set up by the pope for the protection of minors, Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who heads the Philadelphia archdiocese's commission for the protection of minors.
Francis, who in June approved creation of a Vatican tribunal to try cases of bishops accused of not protecting children from sexual abuse by priests, pledged full investigation of cases in which church leadership either protected abusers or abused children themselves.
"I deeply regret that some bishops failed in their responsibility to protect children. 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," he told the sex-abuse victims and their families.
He ended the meeting with a plea to the victims not to lose faith.
"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," he said.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and vice president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, said afterward that Francis' message was "very clear."
"There's a good deal of work already going on in our church" on dealing with abuse, DiNardo said. "The pope was clear in what he sees is necessary to do."
It wasn't the first time that a visiting pope has connected with victims of clerical sexual abuse on U.S. soil. Benedict XVI spoke with a group of six victims on the first full day of his 2008 trip to the United States, after telling reporters on the papal plane bound for Washington, D.C., that he was "deeply ashamed" of the problem.
Vatican analyst John Thavis, author of "The Vatican Diaries," called Francis' words "very powerful" and pointed out that he went beyond an apology and "expressed the church's shame."
The pope "committed himself to holding people accountable, including everyone who has failed to protect minors, and he is backing that up . . . by instituting new procedures and a tribunal at the Vatican that is actually designed to investigate whether bishops fell short of their responsibility," Thavis said.
The sex-abuse scandal rocked the church worldwide in 2002, after The Boston Globe reported that priests accused of molesting children had been moved around by bishops in an attempt to keep the matter quiet, and it has dogged the church since. The scandal spread to Europe, with bishops there forced to resign as news broke that the molestation and cover-ups were not confined to the United States.
Francis' statements drew both positive and negative responses from organizations that represent clergy sex-abuse victims.
Donna B. Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group, said she was "surprised" the pope waited until the last day of his trip to meet with victims. His message, however, was a good sign, she said.
"Saying the bishops will be held accountable, they can't do this to children -- it should make a big impact on the bishops going forward," she said, adding that she hopes Francis' words "are going to be carried out."
But John Salveson, a former Long Islander who said he was abused as a child at St. Dominic Church in Oyster Bay, said an apology isn't enough.
"Words are cheap. To say that he's sorry and to say that he wants to hold people accountable -- we've kind of heard all this before," said Salveson, who is president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse. "That doesn't mean anything to me. I just want him to fix it, I don't care how he feels."
David Clohessy, director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, dismissed Francis' meeting with the victims and his words.
"A smart public relations move. That's what this meeting is," Clohessy said in a news release. "Nothing more."
"It fits church officials' carefully crafted narrative. Years ago, prelates pretended the abuse and cover up weren't happening. That no longer works," he said. "So now they pretend it's not happening NOW, that it's all 'in the past' and only healing remains to be done."
Francis, unlike Benedict, met not only with victims of abuse by clergy, but also with people who suffered at the hands of relatives and teachers.
Doucette said she was surprised by that move, but added she thought it made sense.
"I think it indicates the pope is worried about child abuse in all sectors of society," Doucette said. "Child sex abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church by any means."
In 2003, a Suffolk County grand jury report detailed allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. The grand jury could not issue indictments because the statute of limitations had elapsed on the individual cases.
A bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases going forward and create a one-year window to allow victims to file lawsuits no matter when the abuse happened has languished in the state Assembly for years.
The Catholic Church has long opposed the bill, and has said it could be financially catastrophic for the church and that it would enrich trial lawyers instead of helping victims.
Francis, whose appearance at the seminary came at the start of his last day on U.S. soil, went on to counsel the bishops on the challenges they face as pastors in a modern society where personal relationships have become fractured, and asked them to redouble their efforts to "serenely yet passionately" proclaim the word of God.
He also visited inmates at a prison before celebrating Mass with nearly 1 million people, a capstone event of the World Meeting of Families.