Pope Francis has met with victims of paedophile priests on the last day of his US visit yesterday, and promised to hold those responsible for the scandal accountable as he delivered a powerful warning to American bishops accused of covering up for abusers instead of reporting them to police.
The pontiff disclosed the gesture of reconciliation at the start of a meeting with US bishops gathered in Philadelphia. Francis praised the victims as “true heralds of mercy” who deserve the church’s gratitude, and said 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”.
Francis has agreed to set up a Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops who failed to protect their flock by covering up for paedophile priests.
Victims’ advisory groups had complained earlier in the week that Francis had neglected to address their plight when he congratulated bishops for their “courageous” and generous response to the scandal.
Yesterday, he directed his attention to the victims in a city hit hard by the scandal. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been the subject of repeated grand jury investigations, and a monsignor was convicted of endangering children by not removing paedophile priests.
Francis was also scheduled to visit a prison and celebrate a final Mass on US soil on Philadelphia’s grandest boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Organisers were expecting one million people to turn out. But there were fears the extraordinary security – including airport-style bag searches, crowd-control cattle chutes and blocked-off streets – would scare away many.
At Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, Francis was planning to visit 100 inmates, including suspected killers, rapists and mobsters. It is expected that he would offer them words of hope, forgiveness and redemption.
“His mission is the marginalised, the forgotten,” prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said. “From our understanding, he wants those who are in custody to know that they are not forgotten and they can be redeemed.”
On Saturday night, Francis was cheered by tens of thousands at a music-and-prayer festival on the Parkway, waving to the crowd in his open-air popemobile.
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