The pontiff disclosed the gesture of reconciliation at the start of a meeting with American bishops gathered in Philadelphia for a big rally on Catholic families.
But in a move that signalled a new effort by the church to redirect the discussion, the Vatican said not all five of the victims were abused by members of the clergy; some of the three women and two men had been victimised by family members or educators.
The Pope praised the victims as “true heralds of mercy” who deserve the church’s gratitude for their “essential contribution” toward establishing the truth. Saying sex abuse in the church can no longer be kept a secret, he promised to “zealously” protect young people and see that “all those responsible are held accountable.”
The Pope has agreed to create a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock by covering up for paedophile priests.
It was his second such meeting: Last summer he met at the Vatican with a group of victims of child-molesting priests.
But the Pope and US bishops have also argued that child molestation is a serious problem beyond the church, especially within families and in schools. The Pope’s meeting with victims abused by people other than priests underscored that point.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been hit hard by the scandal and has been the subject of repeated grand jury investigations, including one that accused it keeping on assignment more than three dozen priests facing serious abuse accusations. A monsignor was found guilty of endangering children by not removing paedophile priests, becoming the first American church official convicted of such an offence.
Victims’ groups had complained earlier in the week that the Pope had neglected to address their plight when he congratulated bishops for their “courageous” and generous response to the scandal.
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverand Federico Lombardi, said the pope met the survivors for a half-hour at the San Carlo Borromeo seminary. He said the pope prayed with them, listened to their stories and expressed his closeness in their suffering.