VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Monday used his first meeting with victims of clerical sex abuse to offer his strongest condemnation of a crisis that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church, comparing priests who abuse minors to "a sacrilegious cult" while begging forgiveness from victims and pledging to crack down on bishops who fail to protect children.
By meeting with six victims from three countries, Francis was trying to demonstrate resolve — and personal empathy — to address an issue on which he has faced criticism in what has otherwise been a wildly popular papacy. While some advocates for victims praised the meeting, others dismissed it as a publicity stunt.
Francis greeted the three women and three men — two people each from Ireland, Britain and Germany — Sunday after they had arrived at a Vatican guesthouse. On Monday, he led them in a private Mass at a Vatican chapel, where he offered a strongly worded homily condemning an abuse scandal that began to surface decades ago under Pope John Paul II. Francis also met with the victims in sessions that, in total, lasted over three hours.
"Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you," Francis said in his homily, according to the Vatican. "And I humbly ask forgiveness. 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."
In his homily, Francis also vowed "not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not," and declared that bishops would be held accountable for protecting minors. He said the abuse scandals have had "a toxic effect on faith and hope in God."
At least one of the victims who met with Francis left impressed. Marie Kane, 43, who suffered abuse by a priest in Dublin, Ireland, described the meeting as "pretty amazing" and told the Irish Independent that the pope "listened intently" as she spoke to him while Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston acted as an interpreter.
"There was no pomp or ceremony, and plus, he is not really tall, so he is not towering over you, which is really nice," Kane told the Independent. "He holds eye contact very well."
She said she told Francis that the church needs greater accountability and that she would not feel as though progress had been made until bishops who covered up the abuse had been removed.
Other victims advocacy groups echoed that sentiment, arguing that the Vatican still has done too little to create a strong, accountable system to prevent abuse and stop bishops from protecting abusive priests, as by reassigning them to other dioceses or neglecting to report accusations to civil authorities.
"These meetings are public relations coups for the Vatican and distracting placebos for others," Mary Caplan, a member of advocacy group the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a statement. "They provide temporary but false hope."
Another victims advocacy group, BishopAccountability.org, praised the meeting as "a positive and necessary step," and described Francis' vow to discipline bishops who fail to adequately protect minors as "a significant and historic promise."
But in a statement, a co-director of the group, Anne Barrett Doyle, called on Francis to also meet with victims from his native Argentina — with whom he never met as archbishop of Buenos Aires — and to revise canon law so that bishops would be required to report suspected sexual abuse to civil authorities.
In recent months, the Vatican has faced criticism for its handling of clerical sex abuse from two U.N. committees. Most recently, in May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture called on Vatican officials to take more effective steps to prevent abuse, amid reports that church officials in some dioceses still refused to report cases to local police.
But Vatican officials said many of the concerns raised by the U.N. committees were outdated, and they point to several changes made under Francis. He has appointed a special commission to address the abuse issue and included a prominent Irish abuse-victim-turned-advocate among the members.
Last month, the Vatican defrocked its former ambassador to the Dominican Republic after he was accused of abusing boys. The former archbishop, Jozef Wesolowski, 65, has two months to appeal the decision.
Francis made public his decision to meet with abuse victims while returning from his May trip to the Holy Land. At the time, he referred to the abuse of minors as "very ugly" and a "serious" crime that he compared to sacrilege.
Francis' strong words in May came after he drew criticism two months earlier by arguing that the Roman Catholic Church had confronted the crisis with greater "transparency and responsibility" than other public institutions but had borne the brunt of attacks from advocates.
Some victims' advocates dismissed those remarks as insensitive and "triumphalist."