Pope Francis has announced he will meet a group of sex abuse victims next month at the Vatican and declared “zero tolerance” for any member of the clergy who would violate a child.
Francis also revealed that three bishops are currently under investigation by the Vatican for abuse-related reasons, though it was not clear if they were accused of committing abuse itself or of having covered it up.
The meeting with victims marks the first for this pope.
In a press conference yesterday on board the papal plane returning from Jerusalem, Francis said he would travel to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January 2015.
And he suggested that he might follow in emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s footsteps and retire if he no longer had the strength to do the job.
The pope, who will talk to around half a dozen sex abuse victims, has been criticised for not expressing personal solidarity with them when he has reached out to other people who suffer.
Francis said the meeting and a Mass at the Vatican hotel where he lives would take place early next month.
A statement from the office of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who is organising the encounter, said the date and details had not been finalised.
“On this issue we must go forward, forward. Zero tolerance,” Francis said, calling abuse of children an “ugly” crime that betrays God.
The executive director of the main US victims’ group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, dismissed the meeting as “just utterly, utterly meaningless”.
David Clohessy said: “The simple truth is this is another gesture, another public relations coup, another nice bit of symbolism that will leave no child better off and bring no real reform to a continuing, scandal-ridden church hierarchy.”
He said the pope has shown himself capable of making real change in other areas such as church governance and finance but has not done so in dealing with sex abuse by Catholic clergy.
But a US lawyer who represents clergy abuse victims hoped the meeting would be “substantive and meaningful” rather than for cosmetic purposes.
Mitchell Garabedian said “meeting directly with victims is the most powerful tool that the pope can use in understanding the ugliness and horror of clergy sexual abuse and why it must be stopped or prevented”.
He added that there should be more than one such meeting.
Francis spoke to reporters for nearly an hour after his gruelling, three-day trip to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, taking all 11 questions posed and responding with candour and occasional humour.
He sought to lower expectations about his planned encounter in the Vatican next month with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, which he announced during the trip. He stressed that they were coming to pray together, not enter into peace mediation.
“We are coming just to pray, then everyone goes home,” he said. “But I think prayer is important, praying together.”
He said he had originally hoped to arrange the encounter in Jerusalem itself, but that the idea was scrapped because of the enormous logistical problems that would have been involved.
Preparations are already under way, he said, noting that a rabbi and Islamic cleric would join him in leading the prayers.
One of the more poignant moments of Francis’ pilgrimage came yesterday when he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and kissed the hands of survivors in a show of humility and respect.
Francis said his gesture came spontaneously.
“The gestures that are the most authentic you don’t think about,” he said.