Pope Francis has acknowledged that sex abuse suicides weighed on his conscience while thanking victims for shining a light on the “terrible darkness” at the heart of the Catholic Church.
At his long-awaited first meeting with victims on Monday, the Pope reached out to the tens of thousands of people abused by priests globally, telling them he was sorry for the “grave crimes committed against you”, and for the complicity of the church in covering them up.
Three male and three female victims from Britain, Germany and Ireland stayed the night in the Pope’s residence near Saint Peter’s Basilica before having breakfast with Francis. Each then spent a hour with him in private.
The meetings come amid criticism Francis has been slow to deal with the pedophile scandals which have hugely damaged the church.
In a moving speech afterwards in his native Spanish, the 77-year-old pontiff spoke of the “toxic effect” of abuse, which he admitted had ruined many lives.
He criticised the “omission on the part of church leaders” who covered up or ignored reports of abuse made by victims and family members.
Praising the bravery of victims, he said: “The courage that you and others have shown by speaking up, by telling the truth, was a service of love, since for us it shed light on a terrible darkness in the life of the Church.
“I look at you and … 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 added.
He said the “unrelenting emotional and spiritual pain” caused by abuse meant that some had to face “the death of a loved one by suicide”.
Those deaths “weigh upon the heart and my conscience and that of the whole church”, the pope added.
Francis said there was “no place in the church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses”, adding: “I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”
The victims who met the pope were not identified to the press.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said it was hoped the meetings would “open a constructive path” towards “healing the wounds”.
The meetings had been hotly anticipated by victim support groups who have criticised the Argentinian for not acting sooner on an issue which has dogged the Church for over a decade.
While the pope in May had branded the sexual abuse of children by clergy as a crime comparable to a “satanic Mass” and promised “zero tolerance”, survivors questioned why a pontiff famed for his compassion had not met with victims.