Pope Francis told victims of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clerics the Church should "weep and make reparation" for crimes he said had taken on the dimensions of a sacrilegious cult.
"For some time now I have felt in my heart deep pain and suffering," he said in his strongest comments yet on the crimes, delivered at a Mass with adult victims. "So much time hidden, camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained until someone realized that Jesus was looking."
He said he would not tolerate abusers and bishops would be held accountable if they shielded them.
One prominent critic of the church's long failure to act on the cases, and of the pope's failure to meet victims earlier in his pontificate, said he must quickly follow up on the meeting with clear action to prove it was not just a ceremonial event.
Francis delivered his homily to six victims of abuse, two each from Ireland, Britain and Germany, before meeting all individually at a gathering that lasted nearly four hours, spending about 30 minutes with each one.
"I ask for the grace to weep, the grace for the Church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons," he said, according to a Vatican transcript.
"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," he said.
Sexual abuse scandals have haunted the Catholic Church for over two decades but became a major issue in the United States about 10 years ago. Since then they have cast a shadow over local churches in Ireland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries and badly tarnished the Church's image.
The meeting was closed to media but the Vatican spokesman, who participated, said it was "very intense and moving".
"It was clearly not a public relations event. It was a very profound, spiritual encounter with a pastor, a father, who is trying to understand deeply what happened," Father Federico Lombardi said.
The names and ages of the victims were not released but they were believed to be in their 30s and 40s, according to people who helped organize the gathering.
Victims groups have been pressing the Vatican to hold bishops accountable if they covered up crimes. The pope addressed this directly, repeating the thrust of what he said last April in a conversation with reporters.
BISHOPS TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE
"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," he said. "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."
Victims groups welcomed the meeting but said it should have taken place long ago. The pope was elected in March, 2013.
"I think it's very important that the pope meet with victims," said Anne Doyle of BishopsAccountability.org, a U.S.-based documentation center on abuse in the Catholic Church.
"We know this pope is capable of compassion and his refusal to meet with sexual abuse victims so far has been inconsistent with the mercy he has shown with so many marginalized. This is something that he had to rectify," she told Reuters.
The pope told the victims that he realized that they and others had suffered "often unrelenting emotional and spiritual pain, and even despair" and that some had turned to drugs or even taken their own lives.
"The deaths of these so beloved children of God weigh upon the heart and my conscience and that of the whole Church."
Francis came under fire from victims groups for saying in an interview this year that the Roman Catholic Church had done more than any other organization to root out pedophiles in its ranks.
Victims groups have said the pope had a spotty record of dealing with abuse cases in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and victims from that country sent him a letter expressing "pain" that they were not invited.
Doyle said the pope should quickly follow up with "several core actions" to show that the meeting is not merely ceremonial.
"He definitely must explicitly tell his bishops that all Church officials must report crimes and suspected crimes to civil authorities," pointing that in a number of developing countries it is up to the victim to report sexual crimes.
The Vatican says 3,420 credible accusations of sexual abuse by priests had been referred to the Vatican in the past 10 years and 824 clerics defrocked. The Church in the United States has paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims.
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