He has attained the popularity of a worldwide rock star. And that’s how the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets of Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia greeted Pope Francis during his first trip to the U.S. in late September.
First to D.C., where he met with the president, addressed Congress and urged leaders to use their power to help heal the world of poverty, conflict and injustice. Then to New York, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on human rights and environmental justice. Then to Philadelphia, where he attended the citywide Festival of Families, the world’s largest gathering of Catholic families—and met with five survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
According to published reports, Francis met with the survivors as a group and individually, apologizing to them for both the abuse they suffered and for not being heard or believed when they reported it.
According to a story in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper, the pope told them: "Please know that the Holy Father hears you and believes you." He added that blame rests not only with the priests who committed the abuse, but with the bishops who kept the abuse hidden or gave predator priests continued access to children, according to the Catholic news website Cruxnow.com.
He told the victims that “all responsible will be held accountable.”
But there have also been serious missteps by the pope when it comes to the issue of clergy sexual abuse and how victims and their families have been treated.
He called residents of the Chilean city of Osorno “dumb,” and said that public opinion about Bishop Juan Barros, who’s accused of covering up child sex abuse committed by a priest, was being swayed by leftists, according to an Oct. 7 story in the New York Times.
Meanwhile, his comments to victims in Philadelphia came in response to a question about why he previously offered bishops words of comfort regarding ongoing sexual abuse scandals. In previously published comments, Francis mentioned the bishops’ courage in the face of criticism and adversity. Sex abuse survivors and their advocates viewed his his comforting of those bishops as a slap in the face, the Washington Post reported.
And when he was a bishop in Argentina before becoming pope, Francis reportedly refused to meet with clergy abuse survivors and their families.
In June, Francis created a Vatican tribunal to investigate and possibly remove bishops accused of covering up child sex abuse, or failing to act to defrock accused priests. It’s the first time a pope has publicly confronted or demoted bishops, who are sovereign in their dioceses, according to a Times story.
So far, the tribunal has resulted in the removal of Bishop Gonzalo Galvan Castillo, 64, of the Diocese of Autlan in Mexico. He is accused of shielding a priest accused of molesting an 11-year-old boy.
In June, Archbishop John Nienstedt of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Diocese resigned; a National Catholic Reporter story says Nienstedt’s mismanagement of clergy sex abuse cases led to his chancellor reporting the archdiocese to legal authorities in 2013. St. Paul-Minneapolis Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché, who was tasked with investigating sex abuse allegations against Nienstedt, also resigned.
Before the tribunal was created, Francis in April accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn. The former head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, pleaded guilty in 2012 to a misdemeanor of failing to report suspected child abuse by a priest.