- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2014

Pope Francis on Monday pledged zero tolerance and pleaded for forgiveness from a group of sex abuse victims invited to the Vatican.

This was the first meeting of its kind during Francis’ papacy, and during his homily the pontiff decried the “toxic” effect that decades of clergy abuse has had on the church and compared the abusers to people having joined a “sacrilegious cult.”

“There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not,” Francis said. “Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness.”

The victims, three men and three women, hailed from the Britain, Ireland and Germany. They arrived at the Vatican on Sunday, where they had dinner with Francis. On Monday, along with the mass at his Santa Marta home, each of them spent about 30 minutes with the pope.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said the victims appeared “profoundly moved,” and “positive and serene,” Vatican Radio reported.

Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the courage of the victims to attend the meeting, but in a statement warned that the church was still not doing enough to stop the abuse.

“With or without church officials, abuse victims can heal themselves. But only with church officials’ help can children protect themselves from child molesting clerics. That’s where the Pope must focus,” Ms. Blaine said. “And that’s where he’s refusing to act.”

David Clohessy, national director for SNAP, said that when the church turns over clergy abuse records to outside authorities, “that will be progress.”

“Internally handling child sex crimes, whether by a custodian or cardinal, is hardly progress,” he said. “Many desperately want to believe that this humble, brilliant, and unpretentious pope is tackling the clergy abuse crisis with the same vigor he’s addressing church governance and church finances. He is not.”

Francis has established a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, members of which were on hand for the Mass and meetings with victims. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, met abuse victims several times during his pontificate.

According to numbers from the Holy See, more than 800 priests have been defrocked in the last decade for their role in the abuse, while more than 2,500 have received lesser sanctions.

In late June, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, a former Vatican ambassador to the Dominican Republic, was defrocked by a church inquisition board. Many critics of how the church has handled sex-abuse cases over the past decade have complained that bishops have been protecting one another, partly for reasons of blackmail vulnerability and partly to protect the church’s image.

“All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors, and they will be held accountable. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that these sins have no place in the Church,” the pope said.

Ashley McGuire, senior fellow of the Catholic Association, called the meeting another example of “the clear commitment Pope Francis has to continuing the reforms the church has made.”

“Are things perfect, no. But I think meetings like this are very important,” she said. “I think the commissions are good, the tribunals are good, but the personal aspect needs to be there.”

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