WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday told U.S. Roman Catholic bishops that crimes of sexual abuse of minors by clergy should never be repeated, acknowledging the damage caused by years of scandal in the U.S. Catholic Church.
In the remarks, delivered at Saint Matthews Cathedral in Washington on the first full day of his visit to the United States, the pope did not utter the words “sexual abuse” but referred to the scandal by talking about “difficult moments” and providing help for victims.
“I know how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you, and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims ... and to work to ensure that such crimes will never be repeated,” Francis told the bishops, who applauded.
Wounds from the scandal, which saw priests who abused children moved from parish to parish instead of being defrocked and reported to judicial authorities, are still festering and draining church finances.
The U.S. church has already been dealt a heavy financial blow by settlement payments and other costs totaling around $3 billion, which has forced it to sell off assets and cut costs.
The pontiff has vowed to root out “the scourge” of sexual abuse from the Roman Catholic Church, and last June created a Vatican tribunal to judge clergy accused of covering up or failing to prevent sexual abuse of minors.
On Wednesday, David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who himself was sexually assaulted by a priest as a child, said he was unimpressed by Francis’ words.
“It’s dreadfully disappointing. Bishops have been cowardly, not courageous, and still are,” Clohessy said in a phone interview. “What grudging, belated steps they have taken have been forced on them by the most courageous people in this crisis, abuse victims and their families.”
Clohessy said Francis “refuses to even be honest about what this crisis is. These are not quote-unquote ‘difficult moments,’ this is a centuries-old, incredibly unhealthy and self-surviving pattern of secrecy and recklessness.”
The reports of abuse and the cover-up first became big news in 2002. Victims’ groups say the church has not done enough. As many as 100,000 U.S. children may have been the victims of clerical sex abuse, insurance experts said in a paper presented at a Vatican conference in 2012.
Some 4,300 members of the Catholic clergy were accused of sexual assault, of which at least 300 have been convicted, according to Bishop Accountability, a private group that has tracked the scandal.
Bishops at Wednesday’s event welcomed the pope’s inclusion of the scandal in his address to them.
“It think it’s necessary. It’s a wound ... I don’t know if it will heal, it’s such an abhorrent event in our history. If we forget our history, we are in danger of repeating it,” said Bishop Tim Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana.
Daniel E. Garcia, an auxiliary bishop of Austin, Texas, said Francis’ comments “acknowledges how much we hurt as a church, and how in many ways our own moral teaching has suffered because of our own sins.”
He said the Church needed to continue to “reach out to the victims and not be fearful of them.”
During his six days in the United States, the pope may meet privately with victims of sexual abuse. The Vatican has said an eventual meeting would be announced after it takes place in order to protect the privacy of the victims.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Susan Heavey and Grant McCool