Pope Francis said he will meet with victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic Church clergy for the first time in his papacy. A support group for victims, however, dismissed what it calls a "public relations" gesture, saying it doesn't address the real problems.
The Vatican leader said at an inflight news conference as he was returning to Rome from the Holy Land that priests abusing children is "such an ugly crime" and a "very grave problem," Catholic News Service reported.
"We must move ahead, ahead, zero tolerance," he stated, revealing that he would meet six to eight sex abuse victims from various countries, including Germany, the U.K. and Ireland.
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests dismissed the gesture, however, arguing that no real good will come out of it, and urged the Vatican to do more to hand over guilty clergy to secular authorities.
"No child rape will be prevented, no abuse cover up will be prevented and no predator priest will be exposed by anything the pope said today or will do next month. His upcoming and self-serving meeting with victims is more of what we've seen for decades – more gestures, promises, symbolism and public relations," Joelle Casteix, western regional director of SNAP, said in a statement Monday.
"Francis will be the third pope to meet with victims. Ask yourself: can you cite a single positive outcome of any of these meetings? We can't," Casteix continued.
"These meetings make a few people feel good for a short while. But the pope's most important constituency – abused and at risk kids – will remain vulnerable."
Earlier in May, the Vatican revealed during a U.N. Committee hearing that the Roman Catholic Church defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and sanctioned another 2,572 others since 2004. Figures also showed that it paid $2.5 billion in compensation to victims in the U.S. alone.
"While the Holy See does not have the competency or the ability to initiate criminal proceedings against crimes that are committed in territories outside Vatican City State, it makes every effort to conduct ecclesiastical proceedings against clerics against whom credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors have been presented," Holy See representative to Geneva Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said following the hearing.
"This is done without substitution for or prejudices of other processes that are to be applied by the competent judiciary system in the state in which the accused person resides. Civil law regarding the reporting of the crime to the authorities should always be followed."
SNAP argues that the "church-caused crisis" of clergy abusing children and escaping punishment can be fixed by Pope Francis if he decides to make some real changes.
"Francis should give hundreds of thousands of Vatican abuse and cover up records to police and prosecutors. He should order bishops to fight for – not against – secular laws that better protect kids. He should insist that bishops post on their websites the names and whereabouts of predator priests," Casteix stated.
"These are simple, effective, common sense safety steps that would make a difference. But like his predecessors, Francis lacks the courage to take decisive action on the church's central and continuing crisis – sexual violence against kids and cover ups of that violence."
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has yet to confirm when exactly the meeting between Francis and the victims will take place, though it is believed that it will happen sometime in June.