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Pope Unexpectedly Meets With Victims Of Sex Abuse


In a departure from his announced schedule, Pope Francis this morning met in Philadelphia with five victims who said they were abused sexually as children by the Catholic Church - Catholic clergy rather. The pope announced the meeting to a group of bishops he was visiting. Joining us now is NPR's Tom Gjelten, who is in Philadelphia.

Tom, the pope hadn't said much about this issue during the visit. Now the morning before he departs, he said he met with victims of abuse. What can you tell us about the meeting?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: You're right, Rachel. This is something he had avoided talking about, it seemed, throughout his visit, even though there were high expectations he would be meeting with survivors of sexual abuse. Where - he came out this morning. He met a half or a half-hour with three women and two men. Those are adults, but they'd all been sexually abused as children by clergy. His spokesman said that he expressed pain and shame. And then in this meeting with the bishops, the pope talked about it. I want to play some of that tape. It's a bit long. It's about a minute long. But let's listen to what he said because it was quite important.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) And it continues to be on my mind that people who had the responsibility to take care of these tender ones violated that trust and caused them great pain. God weeps for the sexual abuse of children. These cannot be maintained in secret. And I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and that all responsible will be held accountable.

GJELTEN: And you can hear, Rachel, in that tone of voice how somber it was. This is a real departure from the joyous and warm presentation that the pope has had in most of his public meetings.

MARTIN: Tom, do we know how this came about, because it hadn't been announced?

GJELTEN: No, it hadn't been announced. As I said before, I think it had been widely expected, but there was no mention of it anywhere in the schedule. Understanding now, from Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, is that it was arranged by the - by Cardinal Sean O'Malley from Boston. He is the head of a commission on abuse that was established by the pope, and this was an initiative of Cardinal O'Malley, according to Father Lombardi.

MARTIN: A lot of American Catholics, as you know, have been craving stronger acknowledgment by the Vatican of this sex abuse crisis. With this statement today, are these words by Pope Francis likely to assuage his critics?

GJELTEN: Well, there are thousands and thousands of abuse victims, and it's hard to generalize what the reaction of all them will be. There's one group of abuse victims who are very well-organized - survivors of sexual abuse by priests. They've already put out a statement that this amounted to no more than a feel-good, do-nothing meeting, a smart public relations move. That's what this meeting is, nothing more. That's a statement from this group of survivors.

And I think one of the reasons they're so disappointed is because the pope talked about this as though it was something that happened in the past. They feel it's continuing to happen. They feel the church is not identifying those priests who are accused or alleged or suspected of being abusers. So there are number of concrete steps that they have been pushing the church to take that they haven't taken yet. So nice words from the pope, but they're not satisfied.

MARTIN: Pope Francis wraps up his trip today and flies back to Rome tonight. NPR's Tom Gjelten, who is covering the pope's visit in Philadelphia today. Thanks so much, Tom.

GJELTEN: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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